It is obvious that the availibility, appeal, and reliance on electronic media for babies and toddlers has proliferated enormously over the last several years. Toddlers navigating Ipads, LCD’s and plasma screens throughout the house, cars, and on countless handheld devises are ubiquitous. It has actually been twelve years (1999) since the AAP presented its first guiding policy statement, “Media Education,” and the organization decided it was time for an update. In November, “Media Use by Children Younger Than Two Years was published (lead author, Dr. Ari Brown of Austin) with some updated research findings and very important and practical recommendations for parents and other caretakers.
Although the 1999 statement had already proposed that there was more negative than positive effect of media exposure on the very young and had discouraged TV viewing for those under two years. A plethora of data in the dozen interving years has more than borne that out and the recommendation to keep children of this age as “screen-free” has been reaffirmed. Most pediatricians and many parents have realized this without an organizational policy statement, but the AAPs stand does add the support of solid advances in the understanding of early brain development in presenting a “more comprehensive piece of guidance.”
The key findings, taken directly from the AAP’s advance press release:
- Many video programs for infants and toddlers are marketed as “educational,” yet evidence does not support this. Quality programs are educational for children only if they understand the content and context of the video. Studies consistently find that children over 2 typically have this understanding.
- Unstructured play time is more valuable for the developing brain than electronic media. Children learn to think creatively, problem solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills at early ages through unstructured, unplugged play. Free play also teaches them how to entertain themselves.
- Young children learn best from—and need—interaction with humans, not screens.
- Parents who watch TV or videos with their child may add to the child’s understanding, but children learn more from live presentations than from televised ones.
- When parents are watching their own programs, this is “background media” for their children. It distracts the parent and decreases parent-child interaction. Its presence may also interfere with a young child’s learning from play and activities.
- Television viewing around bedtime can cause poor sleep habits and irregular sleep schedules, which can adversely affect mood, behavior and learning.
- Young children with heavy media use are at risk for delays in language development once they start school, but more research is needed as to the reasons.
The report recommends that parents and caregivers:
- Set media limits for their children before age 2, bearing in mind that the AAP discourages media use for this age group. Have a strategy for managing electronic media if they choose to engage their children with it;
- Instead of screens, opt for supervised independent play for infants and young children during times that a parent cannot sit down and actively engage in play with the child. For example, have the child play with nesting cups on the floor nearby while a parent prepares dinner;
- Avoid placing a television set in the child’s bedroom; and
- Recognize that their own media use can have a negative effect on children.
And keep this in mind: these present only a skeletal summary of guidelines, address only the youngest children. There is obviously much, much more to say about media effects on all ages. But this will do for the scope of this article. Key bottom line: electronic devices of all kinds simply cannot do what loving, attentive, and mindful human caretakers can provide. A final thought: the full AAP statement appeared on pages 1040-1045 of the November issue of the journal Pediatrics. Separated by only 33 pages is another revised Academy Practice Guideline article–on ADHD. Parents who invest enough in the recommendations of the first article may well have to deal less over the years with the problems covered in the second. No guarantees, of course, but it certainly might make a big difference.