Dimitri Christakis: When It Comes To Kids, Is All Screen Time Equal? Pediatrician Dimitri Christakis explains how different forms of screen time affects kids and their ability to learn and develop.

Dimitri Christakis: When It Comes To Kids, Is All Screen Time Equal?

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On the show today, part one of a two-parter we're calling Screen Time. This episode, we're looking at the way we interact with our screens and how those interactions might be changing us. So think about the human brain. From a very early age, our brain responds to and is shaped by what we see and what we hear.


RAZ: This idea has been studied by a lot of scientists, including this one.

DIMITRI CHRISTAKIS: My name's Dimitri Christakis. I'm a pediatrician and epidemiologist and a parent of two teenagers.

RAZ: And a few years ago, Dimitri did a study on newborn babies just a day old. And he played them music like this, Mozart. And then he would analyze their breathing.

CHRISTAKIS: What we've learned is that babies, even at one day of age, will have discernible changes in the respiratory rate and their breathing depending on what they're hearing.

RAZ: So a baby listening to this...

CHRISTAKIS: You actually will see that their breathing pattern is slow and steady.

RAZ: So, like, if you're listening to Mozart, it's like (breathing).

CHRISTAKIS: That's about right.

RAZ: But in contrast, he says.

CHRISTAKIS: If you put on something that has a different - say, Stravinsky...


CHRISTAKIS: ...With more minor chords.


CHRISTAKIS: Their breathing pattern became more irregular and slightly faster. And then the very interesting thing was at the end of that segment of Stravinsky, we put Mozart back on. Then you see a return to the original breathing pattern.

RAZ: They're like, that's more like it.

CHRISTAKIS: (Laughter).


CHRISTAKIS: Now, that isn't to say that one source of music or another is preferable to the baby.

RAZ: Yeah.

CHRISTAKIS: But what we can say is that they are so attuned to their environment early on that they make such subtle distinctions, even on their very first day of life.

RAZ: Now, the idea here is that the way our brains are stimulated matters, especially when we're young and our brains are being shaped by that stimulation. But for most kids, that stimulation is not Mozart. It's not Stravinsky. It's screen time - lots and lots of screen time. Here in the U.S., for example, the typical preschool child spends about four and a half hours a day in front of the screen. And Dimitri has been researching what that means for those kids and for their future. Here's his TED Talk.


CHRISTAKIS: Now, we know from decades of research that too little stimulation early on is bad for brain development. But the question we've had at our lab for some time is, what about too much? Is it actually possible to over-stimulate the developing brain or, more appropriately, to inappropriately stimulate the developing brain in ways that are actually not beneficial but harmful? And this is important because we're technologizing childhood today in a way that's unprecedented. In 1970, the average age in which children began to watch television regularly was 4 years. And today, based on research that we've done, it's 4 months. It's not just how early they watch but how much they watch. The typical child before the age of 5 is watching about four and half hours of TV a day. That represents as much as 40 percent of their waking hours.


RAZ: I mean, all that screen time, presumably, is cutting down on how often kids are interacting, you know, in the real world.

CHRISTAKIS: The simple truth is that we're all what they call digital immigrants. I mean, the incredible thing to me is our children who, if they were born five years ago, didn't know a world where an iPhone didn't exist. And they are digital natives. They don't know of a world that these things didn't exist in, and they're incredibly tethered to them.

RAZ: I mean, they're kind of like guinea pigs because most of the way they communicate and see the world will happen through a screen.

CHRISTAKIS: You're absolutely right. And, in fact, because I'm asked a lot by parents about the effects of all of these new technologies, what I have to share with them is the fact that science quite literally cannot keep up with the pace of technological advances. So we started studying the iPad and touch screen media about three years ago. We were probably among the first in the country to do it. And it takes a long time to get funding for research, and that's increasingly difficult. And then you have to conduct the experiment themselves and that takes time. And you have to analyze the data and so...

RAZ: I mean, basically, we don't know.

CHRISTAKIS: We know some things. I mean, I don't want to be entirely neolistic. We do know some things. But you're right. In many other ways, we're in the midst of a large uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children.

RAZ: One of those things scientists do know is that not all screens are created equal and not all content is either.


FRED ROGERS: Hi, Aud (ph).

AUD: Oh, hi, Fred.

ROGERS: (Laughter) How are you?

AUD: I'm fine, how are you.

ROGERS: Good, thanks. I brought my television neighbor to see what a restaurant was like.

AUD: Oh, I'm so glad. Can I show you to a table?

ROGERS: Certainly.

AUD: I'm awfully busy today. One of the waitresses is ill.

ROGERS: I see.

AUD: So I'm sort of doing double duty.


CHRISTAKIS: Fred Rogers invented reality TV.


CHRISTAKIS: He's not credited with it. Actually, it's not reality, right? It's even slower-paced than reality.


CHRISTAKIS: The waitress says I'm awfully busy, but she doesn't seem the least bit hurried.


CHRISTAKIS: Now, I want to contrast that with "The Powerpuff Girls Movie," the right mix of sugar and spice for a satisfying rush. I don't know how many of you have seen that, but here's a scene from that.


CHRISTAKIS: Again, you can see a lot of rapid sequencing. In fact, this was the first movie that was ever rated PG for nonstop, frenetic, animated action.


CHRISTAKIS: So you can see that there are very, very real differences in pacing.

RAZ: Dimitri says we're just starting to understand how pacing in TV shows could affect the human brain but not just by studying humans.

CHRISTAKIS: There are limits to the kinds of experiments that we can even do ethically, which is one of the reasons we started working with mice in the lab, if you can believe it, to try to develop models of media usage that can be studied more robustly.

RAZ: You basically - you turn mice cages into TV lounges?

CHRISTAKIS: TV lounges, yeah, that's right. That's a very nice way of putting it.

RAZ: What it looks like and sounds like to spend your entire mousy childhood watching a big screen TV and what it could mean for us. That's coming up in just a minute. I'm Guy Raz. Stay with us, you're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.


RAZ: One the show today, Screen Time, a look at how all the screens in our lives are changing us. And just a minute ago, pediatrician and researcher Dimitri Christakis who studies screen time in kids was about to describe an experiment he did with mice. And these were young mice, about 10 days old. And for a month, what ends up being their entire childhood, Dimitri gives them free, unlimited TV.

CHRISTAKIS: By having them listen to the cartoon channel and have photo rhythmically activated lights provide visual stimulation to go along with it.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And then that trio went to...

RAZ: And this is what it's like - bright, multicolored, flashing lights six hours a day.


RAZ: This sounds like torture.

CHRISTAKIS: It's interesting; when we look at their cortisol levels, there's no physiological signs that this is actually stressful to them.

RAZ: Oh.

CHRISTAKIS: But it is over stimulating their senses in much the same way television and other screen media do for young children's brains.

RAZ: What Dimitri's mouse studies revealed is that the more the mice watched TV, the harder it became for those mice to learn and to stay attentive. So for example, they'd get confused by objects they'd actually seen before, objects they should've learned to recognize already. So when researchers followed up these mouse studies with similar studies in children, comparing kids who, say, watch a lot of "Mister Rogers" with kids who watch a lot of "Powerpuff Girls" - you can probably guess where this is going - they found pretty similar patterns.

CHRISTAKIS: What you see is that educational programs like "Mister Rogers" pose no increased risk of attentional problems. Entertainment programs like "The Powerpuff Girls" increase the chances by about 60 percent. And violent programming, which I didn't show you, increases it even by more than 100 percent. And violent programs are typically even more rapidly sequenced.


RAZ: Do you find that your attention span has been affected since you've been a screen user?

CHRISTAKIS: I do think that my attentional capacity has become somewhat diminished. Of course, maybe that has as much to do with aging as anything else. But I worry much more about my children that they are able to stay focused on a task. Many people believe that multitasking and fast-paced world is what we live in and children might as well learn to adapt to it early on. And I don't think that that's true. I certainly don't want people, whether they're CEOs of companies in the future, presidents of industry or even artists or writers, to not be able to stay focused on something.

RAZ: Yeah. I remember when my younger son was 2 and we had a PBS program on TV. It was "Sesame Street." And he walked up to the TV and he started swiping right. He just, like, took his finger across the TV. And he - it was just - he couldn't understand why it wasn't reacting to him because to him, like, a screen was this thing that you can just touch and make it do what you want it to do.

CHRISTAKIS: That really has been a game changer in the last five years, these interactive screens. And it has given those of us that have researched children and screens real pause. But, you know, the one thing that a child never says - or never thinks if they're preverbal - when they interact with the typical passive media, is I did it. And even the best quality children's shows that tried to engage children, recognizing how important that was to their cognitive and social development, would ask rhetorical questions.


ROGERS: It is a beautiful day in this neighborhood. Is it in yours?

Have you ever been to a circus?

You like to swing?

Do you have any idea what might be in this bag?

RAZ: Now, as a kid, you could answer Mr. Rogers. You could talk back to him. But you could never affect what happened on the screen. And Dimitri says this is an area where modern screen technology, like touch screens or kids' apps, could actually do something that Mr. Rogers couldn't because by interacting with those screens, kids can say I did it. I made that happen.

CHRISTAKIS: Any parent of any child who's had the experience of putting them in a high chair and, let's say, giving them something, either a toy or a piece of fruit or whatever, knows what that child is going to do. They're going to take it and drop it, much to their delight. And they'll be even more delighted when the parent comes and picks it up and puts it back, thus creating kind of an infinite feedback loop.

RAZ: Yeah.

CHRISTAKIS: Children love - love the fact that they make something happen in the real world. So what do I think? I think that touch screens and particularly high-quality apps are very, very different than passive media. But the challenge is it's not just not all screens are the same. Not all content on screens is the same.

RAZ: Dimitri Christakis - he's a pediatrician and researcher at Seattle Children's Hospital. You can check out his talk at ted.npr.org.

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