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.

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.