Follow by Email

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Screen time for under 2 years might be okay? What!!!???

I was initially confused by recent headlines such as this reporting that Dr. Dimitri Christakis now says some interactive time on tablets or computers might be okay at young ages. He is one of the authors of the 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines that recommended no screen time under 2 years of age, so this seemed at first contradictory. He has previously been on record affirming that television for children under 3 years is very detrimental for their attention span, stating that it permanently damaged their brains. So naturally my first impression was the news must have the angle wrong.

photo source: Shutterstock

Then I was reminded that when those guidelines were written, the scope of screen time availability was much different. The guidelines relied on research done well before iPads or other tablets were readily available. It was a time of flip phones, not smart phones. We have little information on what interactive screen time does for development since it is such a new concept.

Toddlers in my office are often on their parent's smart phone or other device. They scroll through family pictures. They try to match puzzle pieces. They find the letter or count the objects. They watch a movie. Each of these is very different in what the child is exposed to and what they can potentially gain. There are lists of educational games for 2-4 year olds to teach various skills. I suspect if the under 2 year crowd playing e-games is sanctioned officially by the AAP, lists for that age group will develop too.

We really are in infancy stages of learning what kids of all ages can learn from these devices or all the negatives that could be attributed to them. Of course the types of interactions make a big difference in addition to the total amount of time spent on these activities. As Dr. Christakis explains in this TED talk, some screen time is too action packed and fast moving for healthy brain development, encouraging short attention spans and hyperactivity. Children under 3 years have an especially rapidly developing brain, so they are more sensitive to the interactions they have in real life or on a screen. (He starts talking about television at about 5 minutes into the video but I encourage watching all of it, it is that good.) It is still unclear if television actually causes increased risk of ADHD or if children with ADHD are simply more drawn to action-packed television. Interestingly, educational television programs aren't linked to increased risk of ADHD but action packed and violent shows are. In short, any experience we have during our developmental years changes us, we just don't know exactly how influential television and video games are.

Toddlers who interact with a screen are learning hand-eye coordination and cause and effect. Yes, that can be learned the old fashioned way with exploring their world around them, and I encourage that most of it should be learned from playing with real objects. They need human interaction to learn social skills. Screen time can over-stimulate them if the action is too fast-paced, too loud, done in excess, or done at the wrong time (such as bedtime). Most of us know how addictive screen time can be. We can lose track of time as adults and so can toddlers and kids. If kids get frustrated playing (or refuse to turn it off when asked) they might be getting inappropriate or too much screen time. If this happens, stop all screen time for awhile and slowly re-introduce it after screening the games/ shows to evaluate if they are appropriate for your child's stage of development. Just because an older sibling or friend enjoys a show or game doesn't mean your child is developmentally ready for it.

For most families children using screen time is a given, it's not something parents avoid until at least 2 years of age. Regardless of recommendations to have no screen time under 2 years and only up to 10 hours per week for older children, most kids have much more screen time than that. Parents know that screen time is a great behavior motivator. Parents use screen time as a token to get chores done or to behave well. It can afford a parent time to get a few things done while kids are not running around the house. It is an easy way to keep kids occupied when they must sit quietly for a long period.

We still should use screen time wisely and responsibly. It should be age appropriate. Especially for younger children, it should have a learning goal and should not be too fast paced. A great video from CommonSenseMedia.org, Not All Screens Are Created Equal, discusses quality as well as quantity of screen time. I regularly use that site to pre-screen media my children want to watch or play to be sure it is appropriate for my child. I encourage you to do the same.

Playing learning games on a computer or tablet has the potential to be beneficial for children, as long as it is balanced with active play to allow for plenty of exercise. Remember as parents we must put down our devices too! Kids need our attention. If we are hiding behind our smart phone or tablet, we are not focusing on them like we need to. Set aside time just for family and turn off all the electronics. Model the behaviors you want your kids to do. Help toddlers and kids use screen time wisely and appropriately.