The pediatric screen time debate too often seems akin to political debate or, ironically, TV talk show. One side waves fingers, statistics, and commandments (the AAP should consider stone tablets for guidelines), the other other fingers, iPads, and Pinterest posts. A major challenge for the former, which I admit is mine, is that the technology we make recommendations about advances faster than scientific study thereof, assuming funding for studies is available. Thus, we lean heavily on clinical suspicion – anecdotal evidence combined with experience and the best science we’ve got – while parents and technophilic columnists we seek to sway counter with calls to embrace reality.
It’s not so much we’re wrong, we’re told – to date there are no studies showing benefits of screen-based media for young children – but unrealistic. Out of touch. Abnormal. More irony, as health care is among the most technophilic of professions. Recall those cutting-edge pagers?
Whether inspired by evidence, nostalgia, or peer pressure, we all argue in our own language from our own ecosystem. We defend what is normal to us. A forthcoming Northwestern University study of families of 0-8 year-olds bears this out, describing the unprecedented generational shift underway, screen-based media playing an increasingly pivotal role our lives: super-peer, super-parent, friend, pet, teacher, coworker, confidante. For grownups, the effect is obvious and feels simultaneously euphoric and dismal: who could live without online shopping and reservations, Facebook, texting? For young children, this broadband redefinition of societal norms means that “normal childhood” no longer equals mud, creeks, blocks, and wandering around at the whim of one’s imagination. It means apps, iPads, e-books, structured activities, and wandering around at the whim of a software developer’s imagination.
Consistent with this shift, 8 out of 10 families surveyed above stated that screen time was not a major source of conflict in their homes. This makes sense, because if something is accepted as normal – Club Penguin is just baby Facebook, Leapsters are interactive textbooks – how can it be a source of conflict? Thus, most respondents described screen media as a benign aspect of living in the new millennium.
Resistance is futile. Get on the space ship or wallow on the dying analog planet.
Despite general agreement that screen time has a negative impact on physical activity, 55% of parents were not concerned about media use, while 30% were concerned. Respondents held more positive than negative views on health effects overall, diminished physical activity outweighed by the allure of “learning and creativity” (note: this reflects the potent influence of “educational” marketing described in earlier posts). A notable exception was video games, in a parental penalty box of sorts, which I attribute to the recent spike in school violence. Whether this overall positive view reflects evolution or an alarming numbing/dumbing of cultural standards is hard to say. The bottom line, though, is that the American Academy of Pediatrics and other advocacy and public health groups face major challenges to get their message across, as families – not they – set their own media guidelines, in accordance with what they see as normal.
Exactly what is considered “normal” is a moving target, defined by technological progression. Plain books used to be normal, then e-books, then “interactive” e-books. The neighborhood and its dubious creeks and sand piles used to be normal, then the backyard, supervised playgroup, 3-D cartoon adventures, and the Wii. Cardboard boxes and crayons vie in a game of thrones with “learning and creativity”-themed videos and apps.
Normal is perhaps most defined by what grownups do. In the study above, families fell into three broad categories of plugged-in-ness:
- 39% of families were “Media-Centric,” where grownups spend on average 11.5 hours with electronic media, children 4.5 hours (again, these are 0-8 year-olds).
- 45% were “Media Moderates” where grownups spend 5 hours, children 3 hours.
- 16% were “Media Light,” with grownups spending 3 hours, children 1.5 hours.
Clearly, screen time – and associated health risks – increase with how normal it is considered in a given household. If parents have TV in their bedroom, it seems normal for children to have it, regardless of the fact that it is a powerful predictor of sleep dysfunction and child obesity. If the TV is on all the time, it is normal background noise, not distraction for parent and child alike. If parents text at dinner or in the car, it is normal for children, too, even if conversation suffers and the risk of traffic accidents spikes. If grownups divide their attention between their devices and their children, it’s multi-tasking…or is it not paying attention?
Media-centric families and columnists might argue that such concerns only apply to families using the wrong type of media in the wrong way: too violent, not educational, unlimited, not balanced with screen-free activities. To an extent they are correct: violent media is always worse than the pro-social kind, and good parenting tends to blunt all kinds of health risks. Media-centric children who are consistently read to, taken to the park, played with, and enrolled in screen-free activities can overcome many negative effects, even thrive. This is a major reason why screen time excess is a potent driver of socio-economic inequality – children without such opportunities and/or parenting tend to suffer – but that’s a topic for another post.
A key point of Baby Unplugged is that notions of generational shifts, new normals, and enhanced childhood do not apply to our youngest, most vulnerable population: children under 3 years old. For them, there should be broad agreement. As stated in prior posts, the needs and abilities of babies and young children do not evolve with the technology that is marketed to them. They don’t understand it. They don’t need it. It is neither normal nor educational for them, and let’s hope it never will be. Despite the media-centricity of the household they are born into, children under three must be immersed in the real world and multi-sensorial wonders it offers to develop a solid foundation of basic skills. With this foundation, gradual introduction of screen-based media is more likely to be used in a balanced, healthy way.
And the longer they wait – and grownups with them – the less they will miss it!
My refrain: the first three years are incredibly fleeting. There is no more valuable, focused opportunity to experience the world, unplugged. We should embrace and defend this span as one of grownups and children spending time together exploring the world around them in a loving and engaged way, treasuring every moment. What’s more normal than that?
Share your thoughts! What is normal in your household? How does it compare to how you grew up? And thank you as always for reading.