Warning: there’s a Snuffalupagus in the room.
Babies are curious, perceptive people, born to engage a brand new world. In nature, this fascination with novelty is termed biophilia, inspiring wee explorers to squeal at birds, turn over rocks, and smile/goo at friendly human faces. In the world of play, toys, blocks, and other objects inspire similar engagement, fueling the dynamic early learning process. With every generation, though, the brand new world seems to expand: from analog things like the sky and moon, water, birds, animals, faces, and cardboard boxes, to TV shows and Mom’s/Dad’s iPad. Unfortunately, the latter are so seductive they can hijack biophilia, reprogramming it into i-ophilia and diverting baby to ScreenLand.
Most screen time advocacy and research efforts (and resistance thereof) are rightly centered on direct screen time, i.e. when a child is actively watching, pardon the oxymoron. This is where the “no screen time under 2″ and “less than 2 hours for older children” party-pooping from the AAP comes from.
Alas, there has been a screen time Snuffalupagus in the room, foreshadowed earlier. It turns out that indirect viewing – aka what grownups, older kids, and often no one at all is watching – makes up the majority for young children. A 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics was the first to quantify this – and even the authors were shocked by the findings.
The trend is for gradual increase in direct viewing as children get older and choose their own media, while indirect screen time falls. Given well-publicized warnings about screen time in the baby/toddler population, it seems nutty that they would have the highest background TV exposure. Here’s why: parents don’t count it as screen time. Seeking release from the isolation and boredom of caring for a young child, they watch their own shows, leave the TV on as background noise, or surf YouTube and Facebook as their infant pretends to be absently jawing a pacifier. Regardless, the rationale goes: since babies don’t understand what they are watching, background viewing has no effect on them.
Unfortunately, it does – a byproduct of hijacked biophilia. Remember: human children are attracted to what seems most novel. Thus, the addictive allure of flashing, morphing, noisy, seemingly alive video screens. Interestingly, the greatest effects seem to be on babies/toddlers and adolescents (neo-baby/toddlers). In addition to enhanced risks of excessive direct screen time (obesity, poor self-regulation), documented effects in include reduced duration and quality of toy play (see previous fine motor skills post), diminished parent-child interaction, and decreased vocalization, conversation, and vocabulary. Instead of the real toys, people, and interaction they are hard-wired to seek, children are distracted, yet inadequately stimulated, by screens. The consequence is impaired development and learning.
Given that cited studies concern the effects of old-world TV exposure, many follow-up questions emerge. Is new media better? Worse? What about content? If screens located in specific rooms are distracting, what about portable devices that Mom, Dad, and siblings are increasingly glued to, including during meals, in cars, yards, and even at the playground, which until recently were out of reach? Given that babies are attracted to whatever seems most novel, it stands to reason that portable devices and the content they stream will be even more distracting than TV – especially since caregivers are so distracted by them.
How will we convey that the real world and unplugged time together matter?
Children model what they see. Those who grow up in houses that value reading, tend to be the most zealous readers. Those whose families spend a lot of time outdoors tend to enjoy exploring there. Those who grow up surrounded by blaring TVs and/or with families compulsively glued to screens, tend to compulsively consume screen media – and read less books, go outside less, interact less with family, and tend to be overweight, distractible, depressed, and in academic trouble.
And so, as with the Golden Rule and other noble behavior, it behooves us to set a good example and unplug ourselves, our TVs, and our devices while young children are around. My refrain: the first three years are both critical and fleeting. This is the ideal time for media detox. AAP guidelines back me up here, too, encouraging parents and caregivers alike to be good role models and to provide healthy, hands-on, developmentally robust alternatives like Books, Balls, Pets, Snow (if we ever see it again), and Boxes. It’s worth it!
Thank you for reading. Share your ideas and experiences – let’s get a conversation going…after we go play!