What the AAP Should Have Said About Screen Time

GeekMom TV and Movies

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a strong recommendation for parents to avoid TV for children under the age of two. The AAP admits that this policy was based on limited data and was a precautionary measure, and 12 years later they’ve revisited their guidelines with the new data now available. Dr. Ari Brown, lead author of the policy, presented it earlier this week.

This video is long, but I highly encourage you to watch it through the Q&A at the end. As I watched the beginning, I was encouraged that the AAP was making this revision taking into consideration the reality that 90% of kids under age two are watching some form of screen media and that they were asking if the media use does any harm (because they know you’re gonna do it…).

What follows, though, is hardly different from the 1999 recommendation. They still strongly urge you not to expose your babies and toddlers to TV, with guilt-inducing phrases like missing parental “talk time,” language delays, and “time well spent.” There’s a fair amount of doubletalk in this presentation. They understand you can’t be engaging with your kid every second of every day, but won’t you please try?

OK, I’ll admit that I’m thankful for the original guidelines that I followed to the letter when my daughter was born because it broke me of my habit of leaving the TV on when no one was watching it. When I let her start watching Yo Gabba Gabba at 18 months, I did it because I thought it was a cool show and I wanted to watch it with her. Since then, as you may remember, I learned how to stop worrying about screen time.

Cut to baby number two. Baby number one is now a six-year-old. How often is he in a room as a TV plays Phineas and Ferb or SpongeBob SquarePants? Um, a lot. I’d love to give him the independent play Dr. Brown recommends but at the moment that means that I find my 17-month-old at the top of the loft bed ladder. We have times in the morning when he sits on my lap to watch YouTube videos while I answer emails and catch up on Twitter and Facebook. And with a Mommy who makes games for little kids to play (showing my bias here), he has access to lots of little screens. If he had the disposition to be gentle with it, I’d let him play with the iPad, too. He’s a thrower, though, so he has to wait.

This may be a good time to mention that the AAP recommendation does not take into account any interactive media. Seriously?! A lot has happened in the last 12 years! Not all screen time is created equal!

At the end of the Q and A, Dr. Brown acknowledges, when pushed to describe most people’s reality, that people will expose their young children to screens (hilariously the instance she gives is the Superbowl, because you know that’s the only rare occurrence when it might happen):

We want parents to thoughtfully consider media use when they’re choosing to allow their child to be exposed to it. We discourage it in under age two because we don’t find the value and we have some concerns about harm.

If you ask me, this is the line that should shape the policy as it’s described to parents. Stop trying to make parents feel guilty and give them concrete guidelines to shape the media usage. I’m fine with trying to get people to reduce their screen time or turn it off as background noise, but they could add helpful tips like:

  • Pick programs or apps geared towards the youngest viewers.
  • Music is great for this audience.
  • Look for things that don’t have a lot of edits or close-ups but that show things in a more tangible form.
  • When it’s possible, co-view a program with your child and talk about the things that you’re seeing.

That’s just my list. I’m sure we could come up with many more. Maybe with a little instruction about how to use media effectively for all ages, the AAP could reverse some of the harm they’re worried about.

On that note, I’m going to leave you with one of my 17-month-old’s favorite videos on YouTube. For your co-viewing pleasure, try pointing to the pigeons! Talk about big and little bears! Count the people walking? If you’ve watched this as much as I have you start coming up with all sorts of possibilities.

What are your thoughts on the AAP policy? Will you follow the AAP guidelines?

[Many thanks to Scott Traylor of 360 Kid for the extended video!]

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18 thoughts on “What the AAP Should Have Said About Screen Time

  1. Fantastic article! Very well thought out and rational. Thank you GeekMom for continuing to promote reality over sensationalism.

  2. Great post, Amy. Their time would really be better spent offering guidelines. They could have their disclaimer (we prefer that you talk to your child 24/7, but…)

    I think offering helpful suggestions, like you did in the post, then helps parents feel empowered. Sure, my toddler is ‘watching TV’, but its the best thing for his/her age group and he/she is getting something valuable out of that too.

    What ever happened to ‘all things in moderation’? I think there is MORE harm in the parent who DOES chatter at their child all day and gives them no time to have their own space, maybe in front of a 30 minute, musically enhanced, educational video (?).

    Enough guilt and blame. Lets offer guidelines that are productive and move on…

    Great post.


    1. Thanks, Judy. It seems that the AAP is so worries about giving “permission” that they’re really missing out on an opportunity to provide guidance.

  3. I like the guidelines you give and would emphasize that once your children are old enough (over 4 or so) that they do not watch any tv with commercial unless you are there to educate them about the emotional manipulation that goes on and how commercials work. Get them to recognise how an when they are being lied to or manipulated into wanting a toy or food. Questions like” Do you think that toy can really make you fly?” or “wow, those kids look so happy with that cereal. I don’t think cereal can really make you that happy.”
    Television with an adult interacting and educating is a great way to go.
    As for less screen time with little kids, I have never had cable and my kids were little before the internet was so massive (early 2000) so I know it is totally possible to raise small children safely without the electric babysitter. It just takes more time and different habits.

  4. My husband and I are background noise people so we always have the TV on, but don’t often give it our undivided attention.

    So, I’m a ‘bad’ mom and I let my daughter watch lots of TV. But most of the day, it is background noise for her (right now we have Spongebob on but she is actually playing with her new dollhouse).

    She said her first word at 7 months and has had no language delays so I think we are okay 🙂

  5. ARRRGGGGGH! (I’m begging you, please don’t just pass my comment by without some feedback…)

    My wife and I got some stern lectures about reducing screen time from my son’s teacher. He attends a developmental preschool; we suspect some form of autism, although we don’t have an official diagnosis. He is 4.

    I accept the guideline to a degree; when he watches less media, his echolalia diminishes (simply put, he repeats scripts and lyrics over and over). But we need more structure, guidelines, and context from the AAP… and I mean to say “we” to include his teacher (and his speech therapist, etc.), too. We do not have cable, we do not even have broadcast television set up. We simply have movies. We were told to reduce the movies… but… somehow, recorded music is OK. So where does that leave music videos, musicals, etc.? Is him repeating a song over and over again somehow more acceptable?

    1. See? Jaklumen, this is exactly what I’m talking about. The AAP could be doing a great service to parents by providing concrete guidelines.

      Autism is a particularly interesting case study, where specific uses of screens through apps and TV shows have shown positive outcomes in kids with autism. I remember reading about how Thomas the Tank Engine is a particularly good show in its pacing and the concentration on the large faces to show emotion. We’re also going to start seeing more and more apps not just for general learning but also for kids with special needs – I caught wind of a bit of this at the Games for Change conference earlier this year.

    2. Jaklumen, this is exactly what I’m talking about. The AAP could be doing a great service to parents by providing concrete guidelines.

      Autism is a particularly interesting case study, where specific uses of screens through apps and TV shows have shown positive outcomes in kids with autism. I remember reading about how Thomas the Tank Engine is a particularly good show in its pacing and the concentration on the large faces to show emotion. We’re also going to start seeing more and more apps not just for general learning but also for kids with special needs – I caught wind of a bit of this at the Games for Change conference earlier this year.

      1. Thomas the Tank Engine… I’ll have to look into that. I’m reminded of JayJay the Jet Plane, too; the series was specifically marketed not to be overstimulating.

  6. Amy, I have a couple of objections to your post:

    1. You are using anecdotal evidence based on a tiny sample (2 children), not hard research
    2. You do not consider special needs children, children with vision problems, etc.

    There are, of course, situations when TV (or screen time in general) is of value (whether as a relief for parents or as an educational tool). The problem is, most of the programs for very young children have no real educational value at all, but instead are entertainment thinly disguised as learning, mostly to reduce parental guilt. Same goes for many games and apps.

    1. Hi, Yelena. I totally accept your criticism that my post is written anecdotally, but according to the data 90% of parents have a similar anecdote about why they’re putting their under-2 child in front of a screen.

      My problem is that the AAP could be guiding these parents instead of giving them unhelpful blanket statements. They do hit on the fact that shows that are labeled “education” for this age most likely aren’t, and that’s helpful guideline #1. There are shows, however, like Eebee’s Adventure that were created with much of the research around babies and media in mind. I’d love to see data on the value/harm factors of shows like that. Here’s a point where the AAP could say they would take an Eebee over a Baby Einstein.

      Dr. Brown touches on the fact that there are gains showed by coviewing, and this is helpful guideline #2. They could come out with “ways to coview with your baby” as this might not be intuitive to the average parent.

      As for the research studies that have been done over the past several years, I’ve looked at a lot of them. It’s much more complex than the “these point to harm” mentality. Some screen use does point to language delays, but other studies say that those delays disappear before age 2. Some studies show causation, while many merely show that there’s a correlation between screen time and the result of the study (i.e. speech delays). I remain in shock that no interactive media was covered, because this is an area that can really add value, particularly when it’s designed specifically for a child’s need.

      Instead of issuing a policy like the last one, which parent’s have obviously ignored, the AAP could guide parents towards valuable information in their use of screen time.

  7. “Not all screen time is created equal!”
    +1000 and 1

    My 4 year old and I, even though there’s a gap in age of over 30 years, have so far had nearly identical cognitive development.
    We both read a lot of books, and whereas I watched Electric Company and Sesame Street to death and didn’t have access to a computer until I was eight (Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer), she has a much larger variety of media at her disposal. She doesn’t get any exposure to YouTube, but has Sprout Player and other kid-filtered apps, and a large number of educational interactive apps. She has access to, and indulges in, a number of physically and intellectually stimulating entertainment. Being a bit of a psychology nut, I’ve tried to find her lots of fun things to do, but also things that sneak in some brain work. We also make sure she doesn’t only indulge in one or two (I always used to hear from parents that would have kids watching the same movie 20-30 times in a month), she gets moderation and variety. Frequently, we play the ipod apps together.

    Unfortunately, many professionals put all media in the same category as vegging in front of the TV.

    It’s more nuanced than that. (apologies if this comment appears twice – didn’t work the first time, so I’m trying through a different network)

  8. I agree that the AAP could have elaborated on things. Yes, it *is* nearly impossible for parents these days to effectively ban screen time for young children. However, I am glad the AAP is taking this stand and I strongly support their recommendation of no screen time at all for infants and young children. Why? More and more studies are showing that screens themselves are affecting attention and sleep patterns–in adults as well as children. Data clearly show that children with TVs/DVD players in their rooms are more likely to suffer educational and health repercussions. I think if the AAP’s strict recommendation was not in place, most parents would not consider their own screen habits and how they might change things for their children. I can live with an “ideal goal” of zero screen time for young kids, even if I can’t always live up to that.

  9. My wife and I are the proud parents of 18 month old triplets, and I just feel compelled to comment here about both the article and several posts.

    Generally, upon hearing that my wife and I allow our kids essentially no screen time whatsoever, people look at us as if we’re kind of crazy. (We’re kind of organic-y, so today’s joke was to ask if we would let them watch a free-trade, organically produced, Costa Rican vegan tofu TV. And it’s funny, for sure, so we take it all in good fun.) The point, however, is that it seems like many people really balk at the idea of cutting back on screen time in their lives. In my experience, however, doing so has improved our family’s life immeasurably.

    I’m a teacher, so I still check emails and enter grades and type lesson plans in the evenings, and I try to follow a couple of blogs, but otherwise, I’m pretty much unplugged. And I have found that in the absence of screen media, I’ll instead just take the triplets out for a walk, or read them a book, or just play Hop on Pop until I’m sore. We sing and dance like fools, chase the dogs, and generally act like toddlers. At the end of the day, we’re all tired, so we all sleep like lumberjacks, and I just feel good about the job we’re trying to do as parents.

    Life is better for us with less TV in it. So maybe instead of hashing out guidelines and rubrics for appropriate screen exposure limits, is it maybe enough to suggest that people just do more with their kids? It sounds corny, but I cherish our triple-tag-team tickle-wrestling matches, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world, much less an eposide of Yo Gabba Gabba.

  10. Hmmm…the AAP says screen time is bad for kids and you shouldn’t let them view it and you are upset because they won’t give you guidelines about what is good for them? Just turn off your TV, and your lap top, and put down the smart phone too…and spend real, live, face to face time with your kids. Stop sacrificing your child’s development so that you can spend time creating rationalizations to allow other parents to also sacrifice their children’s development. It’s totally possible. I have a 1 year old and he gets ZERO screen time. Zero. It’s like saying, well I know the doctor says I shouldn’t give my kids alcohol but it really calms them down and makes my life easier and gives me a much needed break, so why won’t the AAP come out with a recommendation for how much alcohol I can give them?

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