Is Screen Time Bad for Children?

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On October 28, 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued new recommendations calling on parents to severely limit the time their children spend in front of a screen. These recommendations arise from studies that have largely debunked the myth of “educational” media, especially for children under 2 years of age, and show even in older children a correlation between total hours of screen time and childhood obesity, lack of sleep, school problems, aggression and other behavior issues. As a geek that has spent many happy hours in front of various screens, I don’t want to believe that exposing my child to many of the things I love could be harmful. But as a dad I have to seriously consider the possibility.

Concern about the effect of screen time on children is nothing new. The AAP itself has expressed concerns for over three decades, though never as pointedly as in their latest statement. Recent years have seen a proliferation of studies on the effects of screen time on childhood development, which can be broken down into two distinct categories: (i) children under two, and (ii) other children.

Children Under Two: Several studies have shown that screen-time, especially passive screen time, is almost always harmful to children under two. Children of that age don’t have the three-dimensional neurological framework to adequately interpret the two-dimensional representations on a screen. Thus there is really no such thing as an educational program for infants. Indeed, an FCC complaint back in 2006 forced Baby Einstein, and other makers of videos targeted to infants, drop the “educational” claim from their marketing. After being threatened with a class-action on behalf of all parents allegedly misled by the educational claims, Walt Disney–the owner of Baby Einstein–not only dropped the claim but in 2009 offered refunds to parents that had purchased the videos.

But does the fact it’s not educational actually make it harmful? For television the answer is clear. Television tends to impair the developing ability to concentrate for sustained periods by cycling through images too quickly for children to process, and by distracting the child from their activities in the real world. Children learn from exploring, moving through, touching and tasting the real world, and they obviously can’t do that when they’re staring a glowing rectangle. The jury is still out when it comes to tablets, smart phones, and other devices that are too new for their effects on infants to be adequately studied. It may depend on what you do with your device. Two recent studies suggest that pro-social applications, most notably Face Time and Skype, may actually help babies to learn. The key element is real time human interaction.

Children Over Two: The picture is more nuanced for children over 2. Children of that age have the framework to intelligently process what they see in a two-dimensional projection and can therefore learn effectively from a screen. Studies have shown that in homes with less intellectually stimulating environments, quality educational media can actually improve educational outcomes. However too much screen time leads to well-documented reductions in almost every measure of academic attainment and may even be linked with attention and behavior disorders. Thus for older children it is a question of moderation and monitoring.

AAP’s Recommendations: The AAP recommends that parents limit their children’s entertainment screen time to less than one or two hours a day, and discourages screen media exposure of any type for children under 2. It also calls upon parents to create a media use plan, including mealtime and bedtime curfews for media devices, keeping screens out of kids’ bedrooms, and modeling effective “media diets” to teach their children to be selective and healthy in what they consume.

What’s a GeekDad to do? As a geek I’d love to be able to plop my infant next to me while I play a video game or watch science fiction. But I’ve become convinced that I really shouldn’t. I’ve decided to follow the AAP’s advice while my son is under 2 years of age and restrain myself. I can geek out in other ways when I’m with my son, whether it is with elaborate sci-fi story time scenarios, by arranging my son’s plushy toys like battling armies, or simply by reading to him. When it comes to newer devices I’m still going to play it safe notwithstanding the present uncertainty regarding the effects of such devices on small children. I have no plans to hand my son an iPhone or tablet, or to set him down in front of a computer (other than to Skype with the grandparents) until his second birthday. While I want him to be a technologically proficient adult, I doubt his brain will so ossify before his second birthday that he can’t pick up the use of smart devices at a later age. Since my son is only 5 months old, we’re a ways off from the need to create a media plan. But I plan to make one.

I hope the geek parents reading this will share their own thoughts on childhood exposure to media, and how you’ve dealt with it in your own families. Modern technology has given us wondrous new means of expressing ourselves and of appreciating other people’s creativity. But it is not the whole of life. I want my son to learn to appreciate the wide three-dimensional world of living, breathing, aromatic people, animals and places, and he’s not going to do that staring at a screen.

David Faith

About David Faith

I am father to one boy, science fiction writer, table top RPG gamer, and all around aficionado of all things super, space, sword, sorcery and science. I live with my wife and son north of the wall in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

David Faith

About David Faith

I am father to one boy, science fiction writer, table top RPG gamer, and all around aficionado of all things super, space, sword, sorcery and science. I live with my wife and son north of the wall in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

17 thoughts on “Is Screen Time Bad for Children?

  1. David — great article. I am a father of two (three-year-old and 11-month old) and I am constantly worried about this! Since he has stopped napping (jeebus help us) my three-year-old now gets “down time” for 1-1.5 hours each afternoon, while the baby is napping. He is allowed to watch television (Netflix streaming) or control the Roku remote and watch/listen to Spotify on our television (which is why my Spotify account blasts all my friends on Facebook once an hour to remind them that I love Deadmau5 and Phoenix). His television choices are generally Kipper, Oscar’s Oasis, or Horton Hears a Who (which he has now seen approximately 4,562 times).

    There are times when the television is on during the day, playing music via Spotify or Pandora, which generally displays an album image and a progress bar. The baby is oftentimes sitting within a few feet of the television (which is mounted rather high above a mantlepiece) and on occasion he will crane his neck at a loud beat or squelch to see what’s going on. But he is generally more interested in putting whatever small object is in front of him into his mouth.

    I think waiting until 2 years is great if you can do it! Especially if your son maintains his naps. Your final comment is beautiful, btw — the wide REAL world is far more exciting and limitless than anything the television can provide. Which is why I have held off on showing him Wii bowling, since I can just hand him a ball and let him knock down his toys instead :)

    p.s. I should also mention that the toddler also gets to play on an old iPhone on nights when daddy is alone with both kids and has to put the baby to sleep. Angry Birds to the rescue :)

  2. I have 4 kids (5, 7, 9, 11) and this is something we are always trying to balance. Some rules we found helpful:
    1) We cut the cable and have tight controls over what TV comes into the house. We cancelled Netflix after the latest Roku update removed our ability to white list.

    2) No electronics in their bedrooms.

    3) No handheld devices for kids (this is also a budget issue…I’m not buying 4 Nintendo DS or 4 iPods).

    4) The Kindle Fire has some nice parental control features like time limits for apps. We have each kids limited to 30 minutes on apps, but unlimited books. It actually works! They’ll play games for 30 minutes, but then start reading something after.

    5) No electronics in the car. Drives me crazy to see kids staring at screens in the car. Talk to your kids, put on some music or an audio book, or teach them how to sit patiently lost in their own thoughts. Not easy, but it’s soooo worth it once you get there.

    6a) Don’t let them watch shows you can’t stand. You want your kids to have the same tastes as you so they are fun to be around when they’re older, so don’t let them watch garbage you can’t stand.
    6b) Watch shows with them. This started with Avatar the Last Airbender and now I’m watching all of the new Doctor Who’s with my kids. Great times and it is a blast to talk Who theory with them at the dinner table.

    7) There is an exception to every rule. Long vacation trips I’ll setup the iPad in the car with some movies, kids are sick I’ll let watch more TV or play more on the iPad, etc.

    That’s my philosophy, but if I added another rule it would be that every family’s dynamic is different so your mileage WILL vary.

    • This is remarkably close to my standing philosophy with my son. The main, outstanding caveat is that he does have is own iPod (it’s a hand-me-down and we just have the one child). He is allowed to play limited games on it – all educational, but he is allowed to listen to as much music as he wants.

  3. John — that is AWESOME. I hope I will be able to follow once my kids are older. We’ve been lucky with Netflix, because we are able to choose the shows FOR him. When he does get the remote for Spotify and/or Pandora, he is obedient and never tries to switch over to anything else. Of course, that might change :)

    I can’t wait to be able to watch Doctor Who with them! Well, that and Star Trek DS9…

  4. Is Geekdad still doing the 10 Things Parents Should Know movie reviews? I found those invaluable for gauging whether a movie would be appropriate for my kids.

    I’ve been meaning to write a blog entry on my brother’s site about the best TV shows to watch with your kids. I watched Avatar for the first time alongside my kids and it was a great bonding experience. We’re having the same experience now with Doctor Who and I’m already thinking about which series should be next once they are caught up.

  5. Thanks for the article. I always had a feeling this was the case, and now I am justified in carrying on my moms tradition of NO TV in the household.

  6. There have been studies done through communication and education researchers that interactive watching can actually help your children. Again, I think it’s a great idea to limit the amount that they watch, but if they do watch, don’t let the TV babysit them. My wife and I let our 20 month old watch some television to have down time for the family (and so our 4 month old can eat and rest), but we always be sure to watch a good show (Curious George and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are favorites) and interact with him while watching. We talk about what’s happening on the screen and how we can learn and use what the characters are doing, whether it’s emotional and social (like Daniel Tiger) or scientific and cognitive (like Curious George).

    I think the key is to INTERACT with your children as much as possible, because children will learn most from adult interaction. Also, be sure to have time where you go outside and play!

    Great article.

  7. I have a 15 month old and my wife and I made the decision when he was born to not let him watch any screens until he is two. Nice that the AAP has validated out choice.

    It was hard for us at first, forcing us to trim back on the tshows we watch, let things build up on the DVR, and cut back on the use of the iPads, but overall it hasn’t been too hard. We also don’t plan on handing him any devices, nor having any in his room. Well, this is not strictly true; there is one device we will likely let him have, an eReader. Although it is a device with a screen, it doesn’t have the same fast refresh and dimensional quality issues raised above.

    And when he is older, we will be sharing some media with him. As you rightly say, he’ll be as tech savvy as any child, the key is the carefully chosen diet. Do I start him with Super Mario Brothers or King’s Quest?

  8. Thanks for the article David. Very interesting. Lots of things to consider now that I’m a new dad with a 5-week old at home. Although, I think I have a little time to figure it out. Let’s hope so anyway. . .

  9. Hi All,

    I have two kids (9 and 6), I have no TV.
    I removed the tv from my home 8 years ago.
    We have two laptops, on for me one for my wife.
    At most once a week we show a dvd to the kids.
    Some years ago, I read a french book (full of US studies ) called ” TV lobotomie” (ed Max Milo by Michel Desmurget). It is really too bad I could not find a translation to point to.
    What tis book shows is that TV is bad for kids, really bad. As early as baby until very late.
    The book lists 1193 Notes, many of them are scientific studies about the various effects of watching TV.
    My advice is, you should not let your kids watch more than some minutes of tv per day. Read books with them, play games, go out anywhere, but dont let them spend hours on a screen.
    Fred

  10. Fred has the closest match to how my 5yr old and 18 month old are being raised. I killed my TV watching almost a decade ago. There are just too many other things to do in life than watch someone else do them on a glowing box. I watch a few shows via the net or watch the occasional DVD but that’s about it. When the co-workers talk about Duck Dynasty I just have to shrug. My oldest gets to watch the old school cartoons (Loony Toons, Warner Brothers, Tom & Jerry, Scooby Doo, Heculoids, Thundar, DnD animated, Tiny Toons) on Sat mornings for an hour or two, just like most of us did growing up. On rare occasions he watches an old Disney movie in the evening. Makes for a special occasion with popcorn & staying up a bit beyond his 8pm bedtime. He has the older LeapPad (that holds the physical books, not a computer screen) a Tag talking pen system, a kid’s digital camera and a mobigo. The two book systems he can use pretty much anytime the camera (that has games built in?!! Really VTECH was that necessary…) and mobi only with permission and that is rarely given. On long car trips I have an old android phone that I let him play angry bird starwars or audio books on (guess which gets more play…) that is a huge treat for him. What he mostly does is look at and try to read some of the 2-3 hundred kids’ books that are in his room. Or play outside. Or play with legos. Or dress up in superhero costumes and beat me up. And we read to both of our kids EVERY night before bed. This is a must for our family.

    The little one doesn’t get to watch anything in our home and doesn’t really care about the TV when it is on. At least not for more than about 5 minutes.

    My wife and I were in total agreement with this practice before we even started working on kids. Bring em up without being TV zombies and it is a piece of cake to keep them that way. And boy, when you just have to have a break for an evening letting them watch an old Disney flick lick Swiss Family Robinson, Bednobs and Broomsticks, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is so nice.

    Don’t ask me how things are going to go in a few more years when all of their peers are talking about who F’ed who and who killed who else on True Blood the night before. Guess I’ll just have to bring them up to tell everyone how mean and bad their old dad is and how he won’t let them have TV.

    As for TV/computer in their rooms. Yeah. When they can buy their own and maybe not then.

    Good luck to all you dad’s out there. This wonderful mess is HARD.

    On-On

  11. In defense of TV, there are some GREAT stories being told. Television is in a golden age right now where the story quality has never been better and the way of getting those stories AND controlling access keeps improving.

    I cut the cable and cancelled Netflix because of the dumb shows my kids might stumble across. We have a Tivo to record shows OTA (mainly PBS) and a Roku for watching things on Plex (which I control…arrrrr!)

    I agree 100% with strong limits on TV. We also go TV free for stretches, especially summer vacation. Last night we spent 3 1/2 hours at a soldering class. But watching Doctor Who, Avatar, heck even Axe Cop brings great joy and creativity to my kids. It’s just like anything else, it can be good, but only in proper doses.

  12. Great article!

    I have two kids, 6 and 10. This is my philosophy, which I discuss with my kids periodically: As you build your life, everything you do, what you eat and how you spend your time, creates the foundation for your future. If you eat healthy and spend your time productively when you’re young, you build a solid foundation. The more you do this, the larger and stronger your foundation. Eventually your foundation is greater than that of someone who ate crap all the time and squandered their time. They simply have less to build on. While you continue to grow and flourish, they will be either building on their flimsy foundation, or maybe even still trying to build their foundation.

    That might sound preachy, but I think it’s worked. I constantly remind my kids that their success is a product of their effort. They can run fast and perform, because they take care of their bodies. They do well in school because they dedicate time to learning. My kids used to ask me to play video games, and I would (and still would) let them on occasion when everything else was done. But they don’t ask anymore. When my kids have free time they grab a book, draw, play with toys. They’re still far more likely to ask to watch TV, but they only watch a few hours a week.

    Just to be clear, we have a LOT of fun. Having fun is like eating food that tastes good. Just because it tastes good, doesn’t mean it isn’t healthy.

  13. Great article!

    I have two kids, 6 and 10. This is my philosophy, which I discuss with my kids periodically: As you build your life, everything you do, what you eat and how you spend your time, creates the foundation for your future. If you eat healthy and spend your time productively when you’re young, you build a solid foundation. The more you do this, the larger and stronger your foundation. Eventually your foundation is greater than that of someone who ate crap all the time and squandered their time. They simply have less to build on. While you continue to grow and flourish, they will be either building on their flimsy foundation, or maybe even still trying to build their foundation.

    That might sound preachy, but I think it’s worked. I constantly remind my kids that their success is a product of their effort. They can run fast and perform, because they take care of their bodies. They do well in school because they dedicate time to learning. My kids used to ask me to play video games, and I would (and still would) let them on occasion when everything else was done. But they don’t ask anymore. When my kids have free time they grab a book, draw, play with toys. They’re still far more likely to ask to watch TV, but they only watch a few hours a week.

    Just to be clear, we have a LOT of fun. Having fun is like eating food that tastes good. Just because it tastes good, doesn’t mean it isn’t healthy.

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