Blogs, articles, and pediatric literature abound – some say too much, some too little – with analyses of children’s viewing behavior and effects thereof: hours per day, bedroom TV, violent video games, Baby Einstein, obesity, ADHD, etc. However, focusing on where, when, and how much time children spend on the screen time stage too often misses grownups directing the show.
The lens seems to be shifting. For example, my last post examined an evolving New Normal paradigm, where parents, not advocates, pediatricians, or even Big Bird, define the terms of healthy media use. Another cited a study highlighting the prevalence and effects of background television – readily applied to background smartphones – on play quality and parent-child engagement. This “ecological” context, involving parent-child symbiosis rather than children in isolation, makes sense. Parents buy the TVs and gadgets, coordinate daily schedules, download the apps, and critically, set the rules. The first 3 years are a time of intimate yet intense togetherness, which is why naps and baby “learning” videos are so popular.
It is well-known that children imitate their parents, often adorably, sometimes not so much. Children want to do what their parents do, and watch what their parents watch. The academic term for this is social learning theory, which any grandparent will tell you is more than a theory. Humans are social animals and learn through communication and imitation. Thus, parents are a child’s first, most beloved teacher, whether encouraging first steps or words, serving as engineering consultant on block towers, or rifling through college preparatory flash cards. Equally (or more) importantly, parents teach by example. This can be good example – petting the dog, responding affectionately, walking outside – 0r not-so-good: texting at the park, checking email at dinner between bites of Stage 1 peas, or keeping one eye on The View during tummy time.
Whatever it is, children are watching every move, taking careful notes in their preverbal brains. If parents are only partially paying attention to them, they’ll see this as normal and disengage (or act out) accordingly. If parents seem more interested in the phone than the swing set, they’ll want to go “whee” on the phone.
As they saying goes: the apple doesn’t fall too far from the Apple Store.
A new study in last month’s Pediatrics recounted findings of a team of researchers in PA who surveyed 1550 parents of children 0-5, 6-11, and 12-17 about viewing behavior, both of themselves and their children. Parent viewing was found to have the strongest association with child viewing (23 extra child minutes per hour of grownup time), eclipsing even TV in the bedroom, a well-established driver of excessive viewing and associated health risks. As child viewing increased with age towards the current 8+ hour/day US average, grownup viewing increased even more. Implications for grownup obesity, ADHD, sleep problems, and workplace productivity are compelling, but beyond the scope of this blog. Cited screen time likely understates actual viewing, too, as surveys tend to involve “social acceptability bias,” where respondents are reluctant to report behaviors they sense are outside of healthy guidelines.
That’s a lot of screen time and not enough books and blocks!
The study also found that co-viewing, which is recommended by the AAP as a means to promote pro-social parent-child interaction, tended to involve children watching what grownups want to watch rather than the other way around. Potential for parent-toddler discussion of budgetary quagmire in DC, A-Rod performance-enhancing drug use, and the Kardashians, yes, but not what the AAP had in mind. The inappropriate content problem was ironically blunted by cited rationale for placing a TV in a child’s bedroom: to free up time and resources for grownups to watch their own shows. This motivation has been cited repeatedly in studies on bedroom television.
Altogether, this raises a critical, yet agonizing issue: parenting. It is always easier to discuss what children should do, rather than what parents should do. Parents don’t want anyone to tell them what to do, even their doctors. After all, they are grownups. Thus, the essence of pediatrics: part viruses, part parental psychology, with viruses generally easier to manage. However, above and beyond anything else that a child encounters in their lifetime: parenting matters. Good parenting is the supreme vaccine, antibiotic, mood stabilizer, performance-enhancing drug, and safety shield.
Parenting has always mattered, and if it seems harder nowadays, it is. Everything is so much faster, busier, and available: self-inflicted wounds of the wired age. Many of us recall a time when we didn’t have any rules other than to stay off the roof and be home before dark, unless the plan was chasing fireflies. This mode now seems unrealistic, if not surreal. With so many new electronic options for us and our children – even if not especially good ones – we need new rules, befitting the New Normal. For the first 3 years, I propose these:
2) Apply old rules.
3) Have fun.
If these seem too simple, remember this: more than ever, in addition to being good citizens, we must uphold our end of the symbiotic bargain and be positive media role models for our children. This can mean reducing our own viewing, turning off background TV, and disengaging from the virtual world (e.g. deferring non-urgent phone use) when together. Not only will this reduce our children’s viewing and help them stay healthy, it is a perfect excuse to slow down, engage, and enjoy this precious time together.
Thank you for reading!
As always, comments and ideas are welcome.
An unabashed, exciting PS: Baby Unplugged books, and others from blue manatee press, are now being distributed nationwide by Independent Publishers Group. Ask for them at your local bookstore, and if not in-stock yet, please suggest that they carry them. Thanks again!