Tuning in to Screen Time

Dinner needed to be ready soon. My son and I had just gotten home from a long day. Would he – a 2 1/2 year old at the time – be able to entertain himself – let alone keep himself out of trouble, in the time I needed to get a quick meal together? Though his self-entertaining skills were emerging, as well as his sous chef qualifications, I put on one of his (and my) favorite shows, Curious George. The dinner got made. But could this practice be hurting his development? Or has it helped? Would an educational tablet app have been a better choice?

As screen time options have increased – apps, video game platforms, smartphones, tablets, ebooks, interactive web sites, a parent’s job has got even tougher in deciding if, how much and what children should watch. And with some of our hallowed early childhood organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recommending no screen time from birth to two, this can create parental guilt and confusion if you happen to think and act differently. This article will explore some of the current research and principles on screen time and help you decide what’s best for you and your children.

Why we should be concerned and an initial recommendation

Children’s exposure to and use of TV and other digital media and technology is on the rise. Studies point to many young children using some form of them multiple hours a day. A recent survey found that TV viewing in infants and toddlers, on average, increased from 47 to 61 minutes from 2005 to 2011. And this is just TV viewing. With other devices and platforms factored in, this number is even bigger. What are the effects of this kind of usage? Is it distracting from other, more beneficial, experiences?

Fortunately, we already have a template to help us make some good decisions. Use of digital media can be regarded like all other activities we provide for our children. For each activity, we should consider not only how it benefits them, but what are any potential downsides or risks, and, because there is not time for everything, how does spending time on one activity take away from time spent in more enriching activities.

So, could your child’s media usage 1) help; 2) hurt; 3) or take away from other beneficial experiences?

Let’s address the last question first, as it is easily answered and is very important to get right. We know that for typically developing children there are many learning and social experiences that are much more important than digital media ones. Here’s a short list:
1. Time with parents talking, listening, reading, exploring, sharing, playing, and learning;
2. Time playing with peers and friends;
3. Time for self-directed exploration or play;
4. Exercise; hobbies; activities
5. A good night’s sleep;
6. Getting homework done;
7. Time for enriching, learning activities;
8. Routines and rituals like mealtime or bedtime – with no screens involved – that help organize a child’s life and provide opportunities for healthy socialization with family members.

If the amount of time spent consuming media – or the way media is used in your household, significantly interferes with any of the above activities, then I would recommend adjusting media usage to allow for these crucial experiences. (For more info on how these activities help your child, see our newsletter archive here).

Much research has supported the healthy child development and parenting guidelines above. So, what’s the science behind media usage and how can we provide children positive experiences with the many screens in their lives?

The research problem. Proceed with caution

A central challenge for offering parents guidance – common among many child development topics, is: what do we really know about the effects of digital media on children? What does the scientific research help us understand? The unfortunate reality is that we only know a little bit about the impact of digital media on children and we need to know much more in order to offer definitive guidelines. This process of discovery has become increasingly complex as the panoply of digital media has grown so rapidly, expanding the list of experiences we need to explore. So, we’ll have to stay tuned as experts delve deeper into these areas.

This uncertainty has two important implications: 1) We should be very cautious when we hear about a new study or listen to others talk about the research. Be sure to check their sources and see how it is being integrated into the wider canon of studies. I’ll mention below a few places to go to find this kind of prudent analysis and integration. 2) Since it is very difficult to be certain, we should be cautious about what we practice with our children. Since it is possible that there could be harmful effects we don’t yet understand, we should err on the safe side and be thoughtful on how to avoid unintended negative consequences. More on this is also below.

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) controversy and where we are today

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommended that children 2 years old and younger should not watch any television. A major kerfuffle ensued. This conclusion was widely criticized by child development and other experts. And some parents were flabbergasted by such a drastic fiat, one that conflicted with their daily lives with their children and created concerns that they had or were damaging their children.

Though the AAP was well intentioned in trying to address what they saw as a growing public health issue – children watching more and more TV, the problem was that they did not have a research leg to stand on. The hard evidence – a series of replicated and peer-reviewed scientific studies – did not exist. However, this did not mean that they were wrong; only misinformed and premature at the time. And the controversy did put a spotlight on a very important issue and spurred on the scientific process.

Fast forward to 2011. The AAP reissued guidelines for media use by children 2 and younger. This time they had significant research supporting their conclusions. They reaffirmed their previous guideline – no media at all, citing three main reasons:

1. A lack of evidence that developmentally and educationally-oriented media had any positive benefit;

2. Some evidence that media use was harmful to development; and

3. Evidence that the use of media by parents for themselves that children might be exposed to – or background media, could be detrimental as well.

From their review of the research, the AAP also concluded:

• children 2 and under consume an average of 1 – 2 hours of media a day;

• many parents expose their children to more media because they think it’s educational; however, the research does not support that educational programming improves children’s learning and could possibly harm their language development; this creates a false belief that could lead to more exposure and unintended negative consequences;

• having the TV on in the foreground or background can interfere with a child’s language development by reducing the amount of time a parent spends talking to a child, interactions that are crucial for language acquisition.

Are the AAP guidelines practical? What are some alternative guidelines? What about my older children?

The AAP makes a good case for its recommendation for infants and toddlers and for its recommendation for older children: no more than two hours a day of screen time. However, many parents will find this difficult to follow for their infants and toddlers and it runs counter to their experience (having thriving children who watched some TV and played their DS at younger ages, perhaps?). A 2010 study found that only 8.6 % of parents were following the recommendation of no TV for their youngest and half of those who said they were following it reported their child had watched TV the previous day. So, what’s a parent to do? And what about media usage for older children? There are some other pathways from well-respected sources. Let’s take a look.

Lisa Guernsey, a journalist and mother of two young children, in her book, Screen Time: How Electronic Media–From Baby Videos to Educational Software–Affects Your Young Child, explores eleven common questions many parents have about the effects of digital media on young children. These include looking at the educational and potentially harmful effects of TV viewing, as well as the impact on language development and physical health.

Originally published in 2007 (and reissued in 2012 with a research update), she digs into the science and interviews the seminal investigators involved in answering these questions. Her exploration highlights the many problems with and, in many cases, paucity of research studies on, these many topics; and she explains many of the false connections that have made between TV usage and more serious mental health issues like ADHD and autism.

From her review of the research, she finds that there is very little evidence that “educational” baby videos provide a benefit and there is some that support that it may even be interfering with language development in some children. In fact, the Baby Einstein brand was successfully sued by the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising; refunds were offered to parents; and the Disney Company subsequently changed its marketing to remove claims that the content was educational.

It has to do with how young brains work

Why don’t these videos deliver what they promise? It has to do with how young children’s brains process visual information and how thinking starts to develop. Guernsey, after talking with many early childhood experts, learned that the way children perceive visual input and symbolic information from pictures and videos is very different than adult perception. One trait: they think representations of objects – like pictures or screen images – are really there: infants and many toddlers will treat a picture as if it is something they can grab and manipulate and will attempt to do so repeatedly. By age 3, children have a much better sense of real versus not real; however, if you ask them whether a bowl full of popcorn on the TV will spill if the TV is turned over, they will say it will.

This ability to discriminate and keep in mind the difference between a real object and a representation of an object (a picture or symbol) is called “dual representation.” It appears that this skill starts to fully manifest itself sometime around the age of 3. Younger children, then, are in the process of becoming “symbol minded” for several years. So, you or I can see something created for TV – a scary costume or an outlandish storyline (Lost anyone?), and be able to think, that isn’t real, but I’m going to go with it (two contrasting ideas). Suspending disbelief – it’s not real but I’m going to consider it as real – doesn’t start to emerge until around age 3. And it’s an immature ability when it starts to manifest itself. So, that scary costume and crazy world depicted can be very real to a young one.

What about children’s ability to copy actions they see on screen? Most parents a well aware of how scary imitation can be, as many a parent has frantically tried to keep their child away from the iron or a knife in the kitchen as their little one tries to copy mom or dad. Does this translate to video?

Research has discovered what’s being called the “video deficit.” If 12 to 36 month old children are shown a demonstration in person, they can quickly master the task. However, they must see an action repeatedly on the screen – sometimes up to twice as often, before they can repeat it. There is something about the unreal quality of the video imaging that interferes with their perceptions and conceptualization of what is happening on screen. So, direct learning occurs quickly if a child watches a real person do it right before them; not so much by watching a video, even if it’s been created for that purpose.

This kind of research into the mechanisms of children’s brains is very much a new science and validated understanding is hard to come by; therefore, since we don’t know enough yet, it raises questions about how we can effectively construct digital experiences of any kind that would be educational. And we don’t want to interfere with healthy development, either. Guernsey and the AAP both conclude that any claims of educational benefit of baby videos should be regarded with much skepticism.

So, what should young children watch?

Fortunately, and even more helpful in this climate of scientific immaturity and uncertainty, Guernsey has developed some straightforward rules of thumb for parents to employ with their children of all ages. She calls them “The Three Cs: Content, Context, and Your Child”:

• Tailor what your child watches to what their brains can and cannot process;

• For children under 2, educational and even story-based content will not necessarily make sense to them; repeated exposure to words, objects and actions will be slowly internalized. They will, however, respond to emotional content of voices and characters, but without fully being able to understand what is happening. So, your youngest can watch the programming that’s engaging and interesting, but have realistic expectations that it’s not the best mode for learning. They’ll learn best by watching and interacting with you and other people. And keep in mind that exposing them to content made for adults – or even older children – could be scary or overwhelming and may interfere with sleep. This includes shows that may be on in the “background.”

• For young children older than 2, their ability to follow a story line, understand symbols, and discriminate between real and not real has grown, and continues to grow as they get older. So, shows that have simple story structure, promote engagement and interaction with the viewer, and have a degree of repetition are appropriate. However, as their full understanding is emerging, like their younger peers, content should not be overly stimulating, violent or scary.

• The people around, places, parent-child interactions, and degree of control a child exercises over the digital media they’re using all contribute to the effects of the experience.

• For children 2 and younger, think about what they most respond to: your voice and your body. Talking out loud to them about what’s happening on the screen can help them develop their language and provide more understanding to what they’re seeing or thinking about. If they are trying to interact with a visual representation of an object, describe what they are doing. Just as with other non-screen experiences, “bathing” a child in lots of language – your self talk about what you’re doing or what’s happening around you is very effective in promoting language development. Fortunately, some earlier studies that showed a link between TV viewing by infants and toddlers and later attentional problems have not been supported by more recent research.

• For young children 2 and older, think about how you can provide your child more understanding of what they are viewing and how the story line or information can be elaborated on after viewing or integrated into daily life. If a show talks about how the leaves are turning color and falling down, be sure to spend time outside watching the leaves come down or make a collection of the different leaves. Or, if it’s a dramatic story, with lots of action between the characters, use this in your pretend play with your child. Take on the persona of one of the characters and your child will jump in. Add in your own story lines and motivations for behavior. And talk out loud about what you’re doing and why.

• Some research has looked at ebooks and whether they help children learn better. One study of 4 1/2 year olds compared traditional and e-books. The conclusion: The context of the interactions for their use made a big difference: when children had more control over how their progression through the story occurred and, conversely, had less interference from parents telling them when or where to touch the screen, they had similar comprehension. Additionally, in cases where the children used the ebook more while alone, they were better able to match a spoken word to a written word.

• The use of tablets and smartphones is growing. Though final conclusions are far off, some research has shown that its benefits – like results with TV – very much depend on the quality of the programming. Some apps are effective because they are engaging and allow the child to control the experience. Others less so.

The Individual Child:
Consider each child’s unique characteristics when choosing digital media. Not all 2 1/2 year olds are the same. Some may have more advanced language than others. In this case, an earlier introduction of more complex story lines may be appropriate. Also, children will respond differently to how visually busy the action on the screen is based on different underlying biology. Or one of your children may be more engaged by loud or squeaking voices; however, a sibling may consider this as noisy and annoying. Adjust your choices accordingly.
So, using the lens of the three Cs – content, context and your individual child’s abilities and preferences, can help you evaluate effectively each screen and TV experience, for each of your children.

The information I’ve culled and cited above is only a small portion of the questions and findings Guernsey explores in her book and in more recent writings on this subject (her website is here; blog at the New America Foundation Early Ed Watch is here). As the research continues and new studies contribute to our understanding, I encourage you to review them yourselves, as well as the policy statements and recommendations from other institutions, like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and Zero to Three (an organization focused on the development of infants and toddlers). Please see the resources listed below.

TV/screen practices for your family

Guernsey did extensive interviews with parents to discover some practical strategies parents could use in their families’ daily lives. She integrated these with the results of her research review. These are very much in line with conversations I’ve had with parents over the years and advice I’ve offered.

• Time limits: Many families find that consistently defining how much TV or screen time a day helped minimize parent-child battles and negotiating, and helps children shape their expectations.

• Rules about when the TV can be on: As part of a routine for the day; at the beginning or end; to fill a hole in the day’s schedule that is not feasibly filled by another activity.

• Choosing appropriate content: Avoid violent or overstimulating content, especially before bedtime; no adult-oriented shows; only children’s shows,

• Families limiting exposure to commercialization: Record shows so you can fast forward through ads,

• Being careful where screens are located: Avoid the bedroom as this can interfere with sleep; put TVs and computers in a more public area so they can be monitored by you; no TV at dinner time as it interferes with positive socialization with family members.

• Limiting background TV: To reduce exposure to adult content; parents changing TV viewing habits (more to less).

• Integrating other household media, like the web, in positive ways: Using the web to help augment your child’s learning.

• Addressing multiple children’s needs: Many times, it’s hard to shield younger children from an older child’s shows or games; develop some rules, conditions or contexts to help minimize this exposure; this can include helping siblings negotiate who gets to watch what and when.

• Single-parent challenges or times when your parenting partner is not available: Utilize getting help from others as well as trying to make good choices for content when you have no other choice.

• Talking to other caregivers and babysitters: Expressing your expectations regarding how digital media should be utilized when they’re with your child.

• Using the DVR or TIVO: this gives you control over when your child watches; watching a show over and over (which is normal); ability to watch your parent show when you want.

I hope this has been a helpful beginning to your understanding of what to do with your own children. I know it’s helped me with my son. In no way now do I feel guilty about letting him watch a little Curious George that day; or do I at other times when I may need a brief time period to do things I would be unable to otherwise. However, the current state of our knowledge has sensitized me to being more aware of how the digital media he sees – and is using – is influencing his developing mind. I’ll be watching carefully and be staying tuned. I hope you will, too.


Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years Council on Communications and Media Pediatrics 2011; 128; 1040; originally published online October 17, 2011
DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-1753

Screen Time: How Electronic Media–From Baby Videos to Educational Software–Affects Your Young Child, by Lisa Guernsey, 2012

The New America Foundation, Early Ed Watch

National Association for the Education of Young Children

Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America A Common Sense Media Research Study
October 25, 2011

Best apps, games, and websites for learning Common Sense Media
(go to “Learning Strategies” at commonsensemedia.org)

What the Research Tells Us About The Impact of TV/Video Viewing on Children Under Three
Zero to Three

Television and the Under 3 Crowd: Making Good Decisions About Screen Time for Young Children
Zero to Three



More Guernsey articles

“Can Your Preschooler Learn Anything From an iPad App?”
by Lisa Guernsey
May 2, 2012

How True Are Our Assumptions About Screen Time?
NAEYC Families
September 2012
By Lisa Guernsey

Screen Time, Young Kids and Literacy: New Data Begs Questions
The Huffington Post
October 25, 2011
By Lisa Guernsey