Whether you’re on the train, at a restaurant, or just at home with your family—chances are good that a smartphone, tablet or other electronic device isn’t too far away. The American Academy of Pediatrics recognized this reality a few years ago, and issued strong recommendations on screen time for children. But as times and technology continue to change, new questions emerge. Helena Duch, assistant professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School and a mother of two young children, has the unique experience of researching this area in both theory and practice.
Here are her recommendations:
Do be sensitive to overuse.
Science is consistent that too much television for children under the age of 3 can have a direct impact on language development. Short-term memory, achievement in reading and math, behavior, and obesity are also serious considerations—but those effects are less clear.
Don’t rule out everything.
In no way, shape, or form is all media bad. It depends on how and what. Programs like Sesame Street help with school readiness (literacy, math, socio-emotional development) for children aged 2 to 6, and tablet applications that focus on the narrative—rather than digital bells and whistles—can actively encourage children to learn.
Do pay attention to more than just the program.
Advertisements for sugary snacks and fast food are a scourge of children’s television, particularly on Spanish-language channels. Also, don’t leave the TV on in the background; it can distract children’s learning and play.
Don’t use technology to replace social interaction.
Contrary to what Baby Einstein would have you believe, children under the age of 3 are not as adept as adults at learning from screens. But if it happens, mediation is key. Talking with these young media consumers, co-viewing, and explaining what is seen and heard make a huge difference.
Don’t treat all ages alike.
Very few movies are appropriate for a 2-year-old. If children are watching something that is not designed for their age group, the effects can be very damaging. Violent, emotional, or otherwise inappropriate content must be monitored for older children.
Do recognize socioeconomic differences.
In communities where there are majority single-parent households, parents with multiple jobs and numerous children, these issues become even more exacerbated. Media acts as a babysitter of sorts, so it’s critical for the public health community to support families facing these challenges.
Don’t try to be perfect.
When Duch’s 8-year-old son was the only child, she says, managing his screen time was doable. But now that she has a 1-year-old too, it’s a lot harder. She battles and struggles just like everyone else—but ultimately it’s about trying your best, practicing moderation, and again, paying close attention to the context of how and what. Happy parents equal happy kids.