Last week, our family got hit hard with the flu. It was a week of staying home, lounging around and a lot of screen time. My seven year old spent most of her time either watching TV or playing her DS. My four year old spent a lot of time playing games on my laptop and watching TV. I spent a lot of time feeling like this was not my finest hour as a parent. While I have (dare I say, fond?) memories of lounging around all day watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch when I was a sick kid home from school, I feel like I’m definitely doing something wrong when I let my children watch a lot of TV. But am I?
My ingrained ideas about minimizing screen time come from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations. Based on a review of the literature, they issued a set of recommendations back in February 2001. There is a long list of recommendations, including:
- no screen time for kids under age 2
- limiting older children’s screen time to 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day.
However, 2001 was 10 years ago—a lot has changed since then. More research has been conducted on this topic in the last 10 years and children’s programming has changed (in part based on the results of the research).
Serendipitously, when I returned to the office after getting over the flu, I came across two recent research articles about children and TV. The first was an article by Suzy Tomopoulos and her colleagues that was published last December in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. She and her colleagues examined a group of six month olds from low-income families. Their research was innovative in that they didn’t just look at how much screen time children were exposed to, they also looked at the content. They divided media into three types: educational programming aimed at young children, non-educational programs aimed at young children, and media aimed at older children or adults. On average, these 6 month olds viewed about 2.5 hours of media per day, and about 60% of it fell into that last category—media aimed at older children or adults. They found that 6 month old children who viewed more minutes of media per day were likely to have lower cognitive and language skills at age 14 months, supporting the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations.
The researchers wondered if the impact of amount of media exposure would vary depending on the type of media kids were watching. Indeed they found this to be true. When children were exposed to more minutes of older child/adult oriented media, their cognitive and language skills were lower when they were 14 months than children who had been exposed to fewer minutes. They found no association for the other two types of media.
This research has two main take-home messages. First, exposing your baby to media not designed for them can be harmful. I doubt too many parents are seeking out shows like Law & Order or Hannah Montana for their children to watch intently. It is more likely that babies are exposed to this type of media while being held by an adult or because they are doing something else (playing, eating) in a room where the TV is on. I’d also venture a guess that many of these parents assume that their children aren’t paying much attention to what’s on the TV—and they are probably right, at least some of the time. However, the authors hypothesize that time spent watching TV together is harmful because time spent watching TV is time that adults are not spending playing with and interacting with babies…and face to face, responsive play does wonders for babies' cognitive and language development.
The second take home message is that there is no evidence from this study of a positive effect of so-called “educational” media for children this young. Why is that? Researchers have done a lot of experiments in recent years to try to sort that out, and that was precisely the topic of the second research article I came across recently. I’ll write more about that next month…but in the meantime, what are your ideas for why “educational” media for children don’t seem to have a big impact?