Ongoing Debate Over Screen Time Use With Infants and Toddlers


In her November 2014 article for Slate titled “Common-Sense, Science-Based Advice on Toddler Screen Time: Finally!” author Lisa Guernsey, argues for managed use of touchscreen devices and media in our interactions with children aged 0-3. Guernsey authored the 2007 book, How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child. Standard advice from health and child development specialists for decades has been for parents to avoid exposing their toddlers and babies to screen media. In her article, Lisa Guernsey argues that given “daily life increasingly includes video, smartphones, and touchscreen tablets. Questions have been flying: Is staying away really the best approach?”

Guernsey believes that children are best served by focusing on “the three C’s”: content, context and the individual child. Her research for the book included interviews with parents, psychologists, cognitive scientists, media researchers, and program executives at Noggin, Disney, Nickelodeon, Sesame Workshop and PBS, and led her to advocate a new approach to screen time, in contrast to what she describes as the “tired advice, sensationalized research claims and a rather draconian mandate from the American Academy of Pediatrics”.

Guernsey is currently director of the Early Learning Initiative at the New America Foundation, identified as “an American non-profit, nonpartisanpublic policy institute and liberal think tank focusing on a wide range of issues, including national security studies, technology, asset building, health, gender, energy, education, and the economy. Google's Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, is the chairman of the foundation's board of directors.

The standard recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) since 1999 has been that has been no screen time at all for children under two. Last October, the AAP debated that recommendation at their national conference, addressing the difference between touchscreen devices, as opposed to television programs, videos and DVDs. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPh, FAAP proposed that “If a toddler watches a movie on an iPad, it’s no different than watching a movie on a DVD player. However, tablets also can be used to read books to children, and high-quality apps are similar to toys.” He recommended that the AAP consider how these devices are used instead of discouraging their use across the board. “We don’t want to risk appearing so out of touch that we’re irrelevant and people won’t take our advice seriously,” he said. Dr. Donald Shifrin, MD, FAAP, expressed the concern that “if parents believe mobile device apps are educational, they may adopt a ‘more is better’ mentality.”

In her article for Slate, Guernsey references a guide published by Zero to Three, an American non-profit organization focused on infants and toddlers, which states that “children should have lots of time for play in the real, 3-D world” and that parents should “make screen time a shared experience”. She points out that the “Zero to Three document, which examined dozens of studies, focus on adult-child interaction of all kinds-with or without digital media-as the key ingredient for children’s development” and states that, “it doesn’t say ‘no screens’”.

Her recommendations for using technology with children 3 years and under is to:

  • Be choosy about the content-the apps, games & TV shows-you let your children see. “when they are very young, that content should be limited to material that you, the parent, would use to engage in conversation with your baby or toddler, such as electronic picture books, interactive apps, or personal videos of family outings”
  • Be aware of context: talk with them about what they watch and ensure media use doesn’t crowd out other activities like outdoor play and family conversation at mealtimes.
  • Be aware of your child’s personality and sensitivities and respond to the child’s concerns or interests raised by what they see and experience when using media sources.

She concludes that “this…does not give parents a pass. Nor is it about making life easier for us”; it only represents a shift from “a ‘no screen time’ recommendation that few parents abide toward ‘mindful screen time’ in today’s media-manic world”.

In another article on screen time for children, Kids and Screen Time: What Does the Research Say, Juana Summers, writing on the nprEd: How Learning Happens website on August 28, 2014, cites the findings of new research from a team based at the University of California, Los Angeles, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, which found that sixth-graders, after five days without exposure to technology while attending camp, measured significantly better on tests designed to register their ability at reading human emotions, as opposed to children who had regular access to phones, televisions and computers. Dr. Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Centre in Minnealpolis and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pedriatrics, notes that the new findings appear to line up with prior research, especially that on infants. When children “are babies, they’re learning about human interaction with face-to-face time and with speaking to parents and having things they say modeled back to them, says Dr. Hogan.

The children who were measured during camp self-reported that they normally spent “an average of more than four hours on a typical school day texting, watching television and playing video games.”

The article references studies that suggest screen time can have a range of negative effects on children, from irregular sleep patterns, to social and/or behavioural issues, to childhood obesity. Research conducted at Harvard first linked TV watching to obesity more than 25 years ago. Since then, extensive research has confirmed the link between TV viewing and obesity in children and adults, in countries around the world. Sedentary lifestyle is being studied widely as a major health risk in contemporary society. “There is increasing evidence that spending too much time sitting – at work or at home - increases the risk of becoming obese and may also increase the risk of chronic diseases and early death.” Studies are now being undertaken, particularly an eight-year study conducted in eight provinces in China, indicating that passive forms of transportation, such as riding in a car, also contribute to weight gain.

Summers also references a research study from a nonprofit research centre affiliated with the Sesame Workshop, which found in their samples that less than half the average screen time for young children is spent with “educational” material.  Marketers are targeting children through an increasing range of products: YouTube has just launched YouTubeKids, joining Amazon, Netflicks, Vinekids and others in providing ‘pre-edited family friendly’ content, being reported on as ‘babysitting’ devices for busy parents.

While there is disagreement about optimal use of media for very young children, the common thread seems to indicate that the key factor is direct, interactive, responsive caregiver engagement with young children, whether using traditional or media sources.