TVs, Touchscreens, Infants and Children: How Much is Too Much?

Before I begin this post let me state that though I make a concerted effort to not have E in front of the TV I have, on many occasions, put Baby E in front of a PBS Kids program in order to get in a shower and/or get dressed…there, I confessed.

When I was a graduate student of Early Childhood Education at Lesley University in 2005, the AAP’s (American Academy of Pediatrics) 1999 guidelines for television and computers was no screen time for children under 2 and 30 minutes or less for children 2 and over. This was drilled into my head on a regular basis, from curriculum courses to child psychology. To be clear screen time for the AAP means any and all screens, 30 minutes total. This translated into a two year old playing a computer game for 15 minutes, and then having 15 minutes left in the day for a TV show, game, etc. for 30 minutes total.

My “real world” experience as a teacher and nanny taught me to never say never. Baby Einstein can be a lifesaver, and a Veggie Tales movie can do wonders after four consecutive rainy days. As a mom to an infant I am OK with Baby E watching PBS Kids every now and then, and she does on occasion when I have to get ready for the day before her nap time. What I’m not OK with is her, or us, being in front of a screen on a regular basis, and even refused to get an iPad for this reason.

My iPad Nightmare

So Many Apps, So Little Educational Value…

But I recently started to wonder, with all the new technology we now have, iPads, smartphones, etc, has the AAP changed its recommendations in light of all the educational media and apps out there? Am I wrong to not want her on touchscreens, swiping away at pretty shapes and letters? In short, NO.

In 2011 the AAP released their assessment of screen time and children from a 2004 – 2007 study conducted at the University of Washington. According to their report not only should children under two have no screen time, but parents should refrain from having other media going on in the background, even if it’s not geared towards children (think the morning news, Facebook, etc). Their study found parents who watched television or gazed at other devices while watching the kiddos were far less likely to be interacting with their child(ren), thus negatively affecting the amount of language and social interactions they are exposed to on a daily basis.

Here are the AAP’s guidelines for parents from their 2011 Report:

  1. The AAP discourages media use by children younger than 2 years.

  2. The AAP realizes that media exposure is a reality for many families in today’s society. If parents choose to engage their young children with electronic media, they should have concrete strategies to manage it [read: a way to limit the iPad without temper tantrums] Ideally, parents should review the content of what their child is watching and watch the program with their child.

  3. Parents are discouraged from placing a television set in their child’s bedroom.

  4. Parents need to realize that their own media use can have a negative effect on their children. Television that is intended for adults and is on with a young child in the room us distracting for both the parent and the child.

  5. Unstructured play time is more valuable for the developing brain than any electronic media exposure. If a parent is not able to actively play with a child, that child should have solo playtime with an adult nearby. Even for infants as young as 4 months of age, solo play allows a child to think creatively, problem solve, and accomplish tasks with minimal parent interaction. The parent can also learn something in the process of giving the child an opportunity to entertain himself or herself while remaining nearby.

So apparently I have more to confess. I watch a morning news program, and I have an ongoing (as in since the age of 10) relationship with General Hospital. Don’t judge. According to the AAP, this daily television watching on my part is a no-no. My first instinct was to disagree emphatically. I spend hours each day playing with, reading to, singing and dancing with, and cuddling with Baby E. Why should a couple shows that I have on as background for the most part, really matter in the grand scheme of things?

Kid TV Remote

Actions Speak Louder Than Words Mom and Dad!

Well, for one thing, I am teaching Baby E to have a love for television. And for that matter, a smartphone. I check mine way too much during the day around her. Studies have shown that excessive television and screen time in general contribute to obesity and poor reading skills. Children who watch television and are in front of computer screens regularly sleep less and more poorly than their non screen viewing counterparts. I may have forgone an iPad but am I really limiting her screen time and TV viewing?

Despite my lack of a tablet I know there’s more I can do to limit Baby E’s (and my) screen time. I don’t want to be a martyr and create a plan of action I can’t possibly live with. So with that in mind…

Here are my Five Steps to Reducing Screen Time in My Home:

  • Make a choice: Morning news or afternoon indulgence? Pick one to watch live and DVR the other for later.

  • Leave my iPhone in my bag: I can hear it ring and alert me a text message from there. No need to check it throughout the day. Let’s be honest: I’m not that big of a deal and nothing on Facebook is so important that it can’t wait.

  • No TV before 7 PM (unless a shower is needed, let’s be real): Pandora radio, an iPod or NPR (National Public Radio) are great alternatives.

  • Stick to a Few Choice Favorites on the Weekend: We are huge sports fans, from football to NASCAR. I’m willing to make an exception for sports.

  • Watch With Her: If it’s just one of those days, and I need a break, watch a show geared towards infants with her and make it interactive.

I’d love to say that this will work and all will be well with our balance of life, television and computers, but the reality is in a few short years (or months, for that matter) I’ll have to revamp how we deal with television and screen time in general. Dora the Explorer and the Doodle Bops have some serious pull.

As always, there are two sides to every argument. The creator of Baby Einstein, Julie Clark, wrote an article in Time’s online publication about the Screen Time Debate. You can read her article here. It brings up some good points, specifically that it’s OK to take a few minutes as a mom or a caregiver for yourself. I couldn’t agree more. Like everything, moderation is key.

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