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How worried should we be about screen time and our children?

The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends no screen time for children under the age of 2 and no more than two hours daily for those older.

If you’re worried about the long-term effects of tablet computers, smartphones and other electronic “screen” devices on our children’s brains, I recommend you read an article published recently in the online science publication Mosaic.

In the article, journalist Olivia Solon reviews the available science on the topic. Her conclusion: We’re probably worrying too much.

“The concern among some experts is that these devices, if used in particular ways, could be changing children’s brains for the worse — potentially affecting their attention, motor control, language skills and eyesight, especially in under-fives, for whom so much brain development is taking place,” she writes.

Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently recommends no screen time (including television) for children under the age of 2 and no more than two hours daily for those older.

But, as Solon points out, “There’s little clarity around the consequences of long-term use of such devices. … [Furthermore,] these restrictions simply don’t tally with how many people are integrating these devices into their children’s lives, nor do they reflect the fact that some interactions with screens might actually be beneficial.”

“If your child is under two and is exposed to a screen it’s not going to be toxic to their brain; they won’t be turned into idiots,” Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard Medical School and an AAP member, told Solon. “But there are potential downsides … and parents need to make a series of risk-benefit analyses.”

No clear definition

Part of the reason we don’t know more about the risks of screen time on children’s development is that “screen time” can mean many different things.

“Firstly,” explains Solon, “it’s important to distinguish between types of screen: do we mean a television screen, a tablet, a smartphone or an e-reader? Secondly, the nature of the content matters: is it an interactive drawing game, an e-book, a Skype call with Grandma or a stream of Netflix Kids videos? Thirdly, there’s the context: is there a caregiver in the room talking to the child as they interact with the screen or are they left on their own?”

Most of the research to date has focused on children and television exposure, she points out, and it’s not clear if those findings also apply to interactive screens, such as tablets and smartphones.

Solon says the experts do tend to agree on three things:

  • Most child development experts agree that while passive screen time — such as putting your child in front of a device for a Peppa Pig marathon — might be entertaining, it isn’t going to provide a rich learning experience. In this case, it doesn’t make a difference whether they’re watching on TV or a tablet: The experience is broadly the same.
  • Having a video or TV on when a child is doing something else can distract them from play and learning, negatively affecting their development.
  • Hours of background TV has also been found to reduce child-parent interaction, which has an adverse impact on language development. This displacement is a big concern: If kids are left with screen-based babysitters then they are not interacting with caregivers and the physical world.

Not much agreement

Those negative effects are all indirect, however — the result of the child not doing something else.

There’s much less agreement about the direct effects of sitting in front of a screen.

Solon describes experiments with baby mice that have shown that overstimulation with “screen time” primes the mice to become hyperactive later in life.

But baby mice are not human toddlers, so those findings seem, well, problematic. Not surprisingly, those studies have attracted a fair share of critics. 

More impressive (but still inconclusive) are what the experts tell Solon about the possible links between excessive screen time and an increased risk of myopia (shortsightedness) and serious sleep disruptions among small children. 

Overblown claims

If the devices are not as harmful as some people charge, are they as beneficial as others claim?

Be skeptical, says Solon.

“There are thousands of apps, e-books and videos purporting to have educational value for children, yet very few have been able to support this claim with solid research,” she writes. 

As one expert told Solon: “Most of the apps labeled as educational provide no research-based advice or guidance. … Less than 10 percent of the apps we looked at had any stated evidence of efficacy [in the descriptions in the app store].” 

And even if apps do have educational value, “toddlers still learn better from experiences in the real world than they do from equivalent two-dimensional representations on screen,” writes Solon. “Studies in the US have shown that when dealing with visual-spatial problems, such as finding hidden objects or solving puzzles, toddlers (under around 30 months) perform much better when the problem is presented in real life rather than on screen.”

A parental warning

And speaking of real life … one thing the current research does make clear is that getting parents away from their computer, tablet and smartphone screens can have a significant, positive effect on their children’s development.

One researcher, writes Solon, “studied the use of mobile phones and tablets at mealtimes by giving mother-child pairs a food-testing exercise. She found that mothers who used devices during the exercise started 20 percent fewer verbal and 39 percent fewer nonverbal interactions with their children. During a separate observation of 55 caregivers eating with one child or more, she saw that phones became a source of tension in the family. Parents would be looking at their emails while the children would be making excited bids for their attention.”

Perhaps parents should be more worried about their own screen time than that of their children’s.

FMI: You can read Solon’s article on Mosaic’s website.

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