Here's a stark fact: Most American children spend more time consuming electronic media than they do in school.
According to Common Sense Media, tweens log 4 1/2 hours of screen time a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. For teens, it's even higher: nearly seven hours a day. And that doesn't include time spent using devices for school or in school.
From babies with iPads to Chromebooks in classrooms, digital devices seem more ubiquitous every year. And one of the hottest issues today in both parenting and education circles is the proper role of electronic media in children's lives.
There's research to support both the benefits and dangers of digital media for developing minds. Plenty of questions remain unanswered.
But those of us raising and teaching children can't afford to wait years for the final evidence to come in. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics plans to update its guidelines on media use later this year. Current recommendations are to avoid all screens for children under 2, and to allow a maximum of two hours per day of high-quality material for older children.
I spoke with David Hill, chairman of the AAP Council on Communications and Media and a member of the AAP Children, Adolescents and Media Leadership Working Group, to hear about the upcoming recommendations and to get some advice on how to use screens wisely.
Why new screen time recommendations now?
The American Academy of Pediatrics routinely updates all of its recommendations to ensure that they reflect the most current data. We are hoping to expedite the process for these particular recommendations in light of the fast-changing landscape of children's media use. We understand that, as the technologies available to parents evolve, they are looking for guidance that reflect their current realities. Our goal is to release these new policy statements in October of 2016.
What are the intentions behind the new guidelines?
The intentions of all of our policy statements are the same: to translate the best available data on child health and development into recommendations that help parents, health care providers and policymakers work together to foster children's optimal well-being.
You made a preliminary announcement this past fall. It mentioned issues such as the need to carefully regulate content, and the need for parents to put away their own devices at times. You also suggested certain kinds of interactive media could be appropriate even for infants and toddlers. What did you think of the responses?
We were excited and flattered to witness so much interest in our commentary.
At the same time, I personally felt a little frustrated at some of the ways that certain parties misread our statement.
I think that people on both sides of the debate at times exaggerated the differences between what we discussed in our commentary and current AAP policy.
While we acknowledged that mobile and interactive screens have become ubiquitous in children's lives, we did not advocate for their wholesale adoption. I suspect that when they do come out, the statements will be highly conservative, reinforcing much of what we have said in the past about the known effects of electronic media use on child health and development.
Talking to different researchers and clinicians about digital media and young people, I get the sense that there is a "harm reduction" camp — many feel that screen exposure is here to stay, even for infants, so to tell families to give it up isn't realistic.
I share your perception.
Are you in the harm reduction camp?
We at the AAP have a history of advocating whatever the data support regardless of public opinion. There was a time when eliminating smoking indoors, removing lead from gasoline and paint, and restraining children in cars were all seen as unrealistic recommendations that no one would ever follow. And yet each of these practices has been widely adopted with profoundly positive effects on child health.
If our future statements move away from recommending total electronic media abstinence at any age, it will be because the available data don't clearly support such a recommendation. The question before us is whether electronic media use in children is more akin to diet or to tobacco use. With diet, harm reduction measures seem to be turning the tide of the obesity epidemic. With tobacco, on the other hand, there really is no safe level of exposure at any age. My personal opinion is that the diet analogy will end up being more apt.
What are some positive parenting practices around technology?
First, I would say role-modeling. Demonstrate your own mindfulness in front of your children by putting down your phone during meals or whenever they need your attention. Second, make sure they know you appreciate their behavior when it's something you like. If they color or read or play basketball or ride their bikes, take some time to ask them about what they've done and why they enjoyed it. These conversations will help them focus on the joys of the "real" world, and they will notice that their activity attracts your attention.
Finally, involve them in making rules around media. Ask them what they think appropriate electronic media use looks like and what sorts of consequences might be warranted for breaking the agreed-upon rules. You may have to help guide them in these discussions, but often you'll find that they have expectations that are not that different from your own.
What do you hope that new research will tell us soon? Where are the biggest gaps in your opinion?
Just last week we finally had a study that looked at the effects that some "educational" toys had on young children's development. The results surprised even the researchers, showing that toys that talk and sing, light up and play music interfere with learning rather than contributing to it. I would love to see this study reproduced and to see others exploring what role, if any, electronic media might play in enhancing or inhibiting learning in young children.