It’s a question always sparking hot debate in parenting circles: Do you let your babies and toddlers use screens? For years, the health and child development establishment has been advising parents to avoid exposing their toddlers and babies to screen media. But daily life increasingly includes video, smartphones, and touchscreen tablets. Questions have been flying: Is staying away really the best approach?
Last month, however, a new message broke through—part of a wave of new pronouncements rooted in science that could make way for new approaches and push “screen time” to be much more than an electronic babysitter.
The guide released last month by Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization focused on infants and toddlers, is the latest and most powerful example of a shift in the landscape. The guide, Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight, is an objective account of the research, summarizing the implications via “both-and” statements such as “children should have lots of time for play in the real, 3-D world,” and parents should “make screen use a shared experience.”
This may sound like common sense, but it’s actually a departure from a particularly controversial piece of advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics: For years, the AAP has told parents to avoid using screens with children younger than 2. It’s a recommendation based on an understandable concern that parents will substitute screen-watching for the warm, real-world interactions children need. But it doesn’t allow for the possibility that cuddle moments might be possible with a screen on the lap.
Worse, the “no screens” dictates have led to confusion. As a journalist who has spent a decade reviewing research on screentime and young children, I have spoken with families across the country about how they use technology with their children. Parents have told me about exhausting maneuvers they have attempted to keep their baby’s head turned away from screens when their older children are watching. One mother in Portland, Ore., was visibly upset when she approached me after a public forum on the subject. She and her 1-year-old had been Skyping with her mother in China, and she desperately wanted to keep doing so because they all loved the interactions, but she worried that something emanating from the screen would harm her baby. In fact, a 2013 study in the research journal Child Development shows the opposite: Webcam-like interactions with loved ones can help young children form bonds and learn new words.
The Zero to Three document, which examined dozens of studies, focuses on adult-child interaction of all kinds—with or without digital media—as the key ingredient for children’s development. It doesn’t say “no screens.”
Two pediatricians known nationally for their research on media—and who once were part of the AAP’s committee on children and media—have also called for a balanced approach. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, wrote an extensive commentary about rethinking media in the Journal of the American Medical Association this spring. He pressed his colleagues to be guided by research, not personal opinion. “In our zeal to advocate for children,” he wrote, “we have largely ignored the positive effects of using media, mismanaged the public discourse, and lost the ear of many whom we serve.”
A month later, Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at the University of Washington, wrote a viewpoint article for JAMA Pediatrics calling for a distinction, at very young ages, between TV use and interactive play on touchscreen tablets. Elsewhere, the Harvard Family Research Project published a paper that accentuated the qualities of “effective uses” of technology: those that are “active, hands-on, engaging, and empowering for children.” And the National Association for the Education of Young Children just published a guide for child care and early educators: Technology And Digital Media in the Early Years: Tools for Teaching and Learning.
These changes cannot come too soon. Household routines are being fundamentally recalibrated in ways similar to the 1950s and 1960s, when television became ubiquitous and altered the way families spent their evenings and mealtimes. In 1961, Newton Minnow, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, gave an impassioned speech about the “vast wasteland” of commercial television, bemoaning how the technology was not being used in positive ways. It wasn’t until 1968 that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was broadcast to a U.S. audience, and it wasn’t until 1969 that Joan Ganz Cooney and her friends in New York City produced the first Sesame Street. Both were effective efforts to make something worthwhile for children and their families using the new medium. But by then, many habits had already become ingrained: Kids’ TV had become little more than a tool for keeping children from tearing up the living room.
My quest to understand how screen media affects children started several years ago, when my daughters were toddlers. I had been startled by, and curious about, the AAP’s recommendation. But the findings in scientific research, I discovered, were not as dire as I had been led to believe. The science could even be put into a one-line mantra: Remember the three C’s: the content, the context, and the child.
This means: Be choosy about the content—the apps, games, and TV shows—that 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 the context—it’s good to talk with kids about what they watch, for example—and ensure their media use does not crowd out other activities, such as outdoor play and conversation-filled mealtimes. And be alert to the needs of the child as an individual: A child will react in unique ways to what he or she sees and plays with. She may need more limits or increased face-to-face time with you depending on her age and what she is going through at any given moment, or she could have new interests sparked by what she experiences on screen.
This shift in advice does not give parents a pass. Nor is it about making life easier for us. Let’s face it: Raising children turns our hair gray no matter what. But at least it moves us from a “no screen time” recommendation that few parents abide toward “mindful screen time” in today’s media-manic world.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.