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Screen Time for Preschoolers: Recommendations vs. Reality

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This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with its 2013 recommendations about children and media use. To cut to the chase, they suggest limiting total screen time for children over 2 years old to two hours or less a day, and advise "discouraging" any screen time, at all, for children under the age of 2. While many researchers, politicians, teachers and parents applaud these strict recommendations, an awful lot of parents wonder how realistically they can adhere to them.

After the last time the AAP came out with similar suggestions in 2011, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center agreed that kids under 24 months old should not have any "passive" screen time, but suggested that interactive screen time, such as Skyping, might not be so bad if screen time is limited to materials "that appropriately support responsive interactions between caregivers and children and strengthen adult-child relationships." It's important to note that these organizations did not necessarily advocate eliminating all forms of screen time for very young children.

As Lisa Guernsey, author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media -- from Baby Videos to Educational Software -- Affects Your Young Child points out in an article on the NAEYC website, in fact, there are studies that have shown very young children can get some benefits from carefully selected media content, especially when parents or caregivers are interacting with children as they are using the media.

Some researchers, for example, have found that when children under 2 viewed "educational" content on TV, it did not negatively affect their attention span; others have found that the type of presentation of material in media materials makes a difference on what very young children can learn. Some studies have shown that individual and developmental differences in very young children affect how kids perceive and receive media content, and that the effects are not all bad. Some effects are even positive, such as language acquisition, recognition of letters, numbers or patterns of different sorts. And other researchers have found that when parents are watching/using media with their infants and toddlers, the learning that occurs often seems to "stick" more.

Amy Jordan, the Director of the Media and the Developing Child Sector at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that the AAP guidelines were based on research that has shown young children benefit from active play, including interaction with other people and using manipulatives to learn. "What we really don't know much about is the impact of interactive media on the developing brain," Jordan says. "Some of these new platforms give children an opportunity for tactile connection and a context that is socially contingent." Jordan feels that more research is necessary to study what children might learn and how they might benefit from interactive media -- even very young children.

The AAP also recommends that parents do not allow their children to have televisions or Internet access in their bedrooms, for some research has found a link between kids who have TVs in their bedrooms and obesity, as well as kids who have disrupted patterns of sleep. However, as a mother of three children under the age of 10 points out to me, "When content is available on all kinds of mobile devices, you don't really need a TV or Internet access for kids to be viewing entertainment media in their bedrooms -- or anywhere at all!"

And there's at least one other major problem that many parents have with the AAP's recommendations for their children under the age of 2: What do you do when your under-2-year-old child has older siblings who are viewing or playing things on one kind of screen or another?

"When my 4-year-old son is watching Sesame Street, what am I supposed to do when the 18-month-old wants to watch, too?" asks one beleaguered mom. "It's almost not so much the program, but the appeal of doing what his older brother wants to do, too. Is that such a bad thing?"

It turns out that there's not a lot of research out there to guide parents on this point. Some researchers have found, not surprisingly, that in households with multiple children, there's more media use in general. And a number of researchers have found that when siblings are viewing television together, the choices tend to be made by the older child. What this often means is that younger children tend to be viewing programming that trends more toward entertainment than toward education.

So, what's a parent to do? When asked, Jordan tells me she believes additional research might shed light on issues of how sibling interactions affect media use, and that from that, we might be able to develop better suggestions for parents about how to deal with this issue. In the meantime, Jordan thinks that the most important thing for parents to do with regard to their young children's media use is to model the kind of media use they believe in.

The 2013 AAP policy statement also suggests parents monitor their kids' media content, watch and use media with both young children and older kids as a way of discussing family values and, importantly, "model active parenting by establishing a home use plan for all media."

"If nothing else, I hope that the new AAP guidelines encourage parents to be more reflective about what they're doing," Jordan concludes. If parents model limited use of media, provide their children with educational media and watch or use it with them, it's more likely that the 4-year-old will use it, too. And so will the 18-month-old.