12/29/2014 09:27 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

Newer (and Better) Recommendations on Screen Time for Young Children

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Whether or not to let our toddlers have exposure to screens, be they televisions or computerized devices, has been an area of contention for many years. Until now, all parents have had to go on were the problematic and unrealistic recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who have recommended no screen time of any kind for toddlers. Now, the group Zero to Three has released more evidence-based, realistic and useful guidelines for parents. Rather than the abstinence-only perspective of the AAP, Zero to Three notes that using or not using screens is not an either/or proposition. Rather, how screens are used, what the context is of media use, and how all this relates to an overall parenting approach are more important than trying to shield toddlers from anything having to do with technology.

Increasingly our world is a wired one. But keeping our children away from screens entirely may never have been the best of ideas. My colleague Brent Donnellan and I recently revisited one of the datasets used by the AAP in making their recommendations for no screen time for toddlers. We were concerned that the original report had not handled the data properly. When we reanalyzed it we found, among other things, that educational television had a small positive impact on toddler's language development, and that children with no television use -- as per the AAP's recommendations -- tended to have slower language development than did toddlers with at least some screen time. It's impossible to make a causal argument from correlational data, but avoiding screens doesn't seem to be associated with positive developments in the way that the AAP's old recommendations might suggest.

This doesn't mean that anything goes, however. No one is suggesting parents put baby in front of Reservoir Dogs on endless loop. Context of screen use does matter. For example, incorporating screen use in interactions between toddlers and their parents appear to be at the high end of the ideal spectrum. This is something similar to what I've advocated for years for parents with older children... use media with your kids. Too often parental interaction and screen use have been seen as competing, but this doesn't always have to be so. Educational media may also be positive even for toddlers. On the other hand, the Zero to Three recommendations suggest it is best to minimize background television and other media. So, if you can avoid it, don't leave the nightly news buzzing in the background.

What I like about the Zero to Three recommendations is that they are positively focused. They're a lot more about what parents can do and how they can bring technology into their interactions with their young children. This is an improvement on past recommendations that focused exclusively on what parents shouldn't do -- and often based those recommendations on shaky or nonexistent data -- ultimately doing little more constructive than shaming parents unable to live up to lofty ideals.

The other thing for parents to realize -- media effects in either direction are generally very small, where they exist at all. It's good to have a plan, keep things in moderation and try to integrate media use as a social and interactive rather than solitary activity. But if, from time to time, parents plop junior in front of Sesame Street in order to grab a shower, the result will not be special education or juvenile detention down the line. Neither will using enriching videos turn your child into a genius. Part of the furor over media and children is the difficulty we -- as a society and a scholarly community -- have had in trying to put these issues into perspective. Too often parents have been presented with hysterical claims of looming disaster or dramatic enlightenment. In reality, parents should certainly give consideration into how to incorporate media into their children's lives. And moderation and involvement are key. But, in the end, what works for one family will be different from will work for another.

This is probably where the scientific community has most failed parents: by too often focusing on a "one size fits all" approach to media and children. Like Zero to Three, we should encourage parents to make informed decisions on media. And respect them when they do, even if those decisions differ from those we would make ourselves as parents. Like Zero to Three, we should not shame or judge parents for allowing media use, which shuts down the conversation, but instead encourage and partner with them in making mindful, informed decisions that works best for their child and family.

More information:
Zero to Three Guidelines
Myths about Screen Time.