How True Are Our Assumptions About Screen Time?

Young children today are practically bathed in this stuff as young as toddlerhood. What is the impact? As a parent who is simultaneously fascinated by and worried about the impact of electronic media on my children─and as a journalist and researcher specializing in education, technology, and social science─I have been digging for answers. Along the way I’ve come upon several research findings that overturn conventional wisdom. Here are five common parental assumptions that the research does not necessarily support.
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Video, TV, interactive books, screen-based games: Young children today are practically bathed in this stuff as young as toddlerhood. What is the impact? As a parent who is simultaneously fascinated by and worried about the impact of electronic media on my children─and as a journalist and researcher specializing in education, technology, and social science─I have been digging for answers. Along the way I’ve come upon several research findings that overturn conventional wisdom. Here are five common parental assumptions that the research does not necessarily support.

Assumption 1: As long as the content is “educational,” it’s good for children.
What the research shows: Children don’t always learn what the program creators intend; sometimes they actually learn the opposite.

When I started the research for Screen Time, I expected to find what many of us have been brought up to believe: As long as a program is teaching the children something, as long as it seems to send positive messages, as long as it is produced by an educational station I trust—everything is fine. But I wasn’t prepared for the wide variation among programs that label themselves as “educational.” Many parents wrongly assume that their children will automatically understand what is happening on screen. But the way information is presented can support or get in the way of a child’s ability to comprehend. Simply having characters utter nice new words, for example, doesn’t mean that toddlers or preschoolers will learn what those words mean. A show that has characters pointing to and labeling objects can be a big help, but a show designed by people without a clue about the language development under way among its audience (in my book and presentations I pick on Veggie Tales and Bob the Builder) may not be building language skills at all.

One eye-opening study focused on the program Clifford the Big Red Dog. Researchers (Mares & Acosta 2008) asked whether kindergartners were grasping messages of tolerance and kindness in an episode about a three-legged dog. Although the point of the story was to show that friendship overcomes physical differences, the University of Wisconsin researchers found that children were likely to be more intolerant after watching the show. How could that be? The researchers theorize that the story’s delivery backfired. Because the bulk of the episode was focused on the dog’s physical differences (with only a few minutes at the end dedicated to all the characters joining happily together), children may have been too preoccupied with the dog’s three-leggedness to catch the moral lesson. The designers of the show didn’t seem to recognize how kindergarteners interpret, recall, and learn from what they see.
Assumption 2: The TV may be on in the background, but my children aren’t affected.
What the research shows: The TV shows in the background may be impacting your child more than you think.

Nearly 40 percent of families with children up to 4 years old have the television on most or all of the time (Rideout, Hamel, & the Kaiser Family Foundation 2006). When my daughter was 1, I remember thinking that it didn’t matter whether the television was on or not. Look, I would tell myself proudly, she barely notices. She’s not lured in the least. But once I delved into the research, I learned that even if young children don’t seem to be paying attention to it, background television can have a more negative influence than one might think.

Some of the most potent research on background TV comes from a series of experiments in a lab at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (Schmidt et al. 2008). The lab was set up to look like a living room, with toys, a TV, a couch, a coffee table, and some magazines. Mothers brought their 1-, 2- and 3-year-old children to that room, where for 30 minutes of their visit the TV was on. For another 30 minutes, it was off. Careful observation of the children in these experiments showed a significant difference between the way children played with their toys in each condition. When the TV was on, children bopped from toy to toy, spending significantly less time with one toy than when the TV was off. Even when they weren’t looking at the TV, and most children in this study weren’t, it seemed as if something was distracting them. The background TV, whether it was the noise or the flash of images, was interfering with their play.

University of Massachusetts researchers also looked at how parents’ interactions with their children differed under TV-on and TV-off conditions. They found that when the TV was on, there was a 21 percent decrease in the amount of time that parents spent interacting with their children. And the quality of those interactions (as measured by how actively they played together) decreased too (Kirkorian et al. 2009).

Assumption 3: All media for children under age 2 is damaging.
What the research shows:  If parents use media with children under 2, they should make sure that screen time leads to social interactions with their babies and toddlers, instead of replacing those interactions. Parents should avoid exposing their very young children to adult-directed programming.

In 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated its recommendation discouraging parents from using media with children under 24 months of age. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age 2; a few studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems; and some studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. From a “do no harm” perspective, AAP’s reliance on this research makes sense, and much of it is based on respectable peer-reviewed work in medicine and health.

But the fact is that many children under 2 do use screen media, so some researchers point to the value of paying attention to how those families select and use that media. Researchers are coming to agree:  How parents approach media matters. For example, Alan Mendelsohn, a pediatrician and researcher at New York University, has shown that negative impacts typically associated with television watching can be lessened when parents talk to their babies about what they are seeing on screen (Mendelsohn 2010).

Another way of looking at young children and screens is to explore whether a child might learn from watching or playing with what is on screen. A growing number of studies show that what is on the TV or tablet (the content) can make a big difference. For example, when researchers followed up on their study that originally showed links between television viewing and attention problems, they determined that the content of the programs mattered. When they looked at children under 36 months old who had watched “educational” programming (defined in part by programs that contained no violence), the link to attention problems disappeared (Zimmerman & Christakis 2007).

Also important is how parents manage media use in daily routines and interact with their children before, during, and after they watch and play (the context). The needs of the child have some bearing here too. Even at the same age, children can be very different developmentally. A verbally precocious 21-month-old may be able to learn some words directly from a video while another 21-month-old may not, as was shown in a 2005 study on Teletubbies (Grela, Krcmar & Lin 2004). That study, it should be noted, was conducted in a laboratory and designed to look specifically at whether babies could pick up the meaning of a word when it was connected to a particular object labeled by speakers on screen. As shown in other studies, the way words are used in children’s programming is an important factor in determining whether children will learn them. And a vast collection of findings from other studies makes clear that learning language (not just learning words) is dependent on social interactions between people.

By synthesizing the studies on children’s health, learning, and media interactions, I’ve concluded that we as parents could do the most good for our children by focusing on the three C’s—content, context, and the individual child.
Assumption 4: Scary movies and TV shows just go over children’s heads.
What the research shows: Scary programs influence children’s sleep and more.

In my interviews and conversations with parents, I have come across a fair proportion who don’t worry about showing their preschoolers movies or TV shows that were made for older children and adults. Their children, they say, don’t seem to be bothered by moments of aggression or distressing scenes. And surely they are too young to really understand what they are seeing anyway.

But research on the content of TV and video programs watched by young children suggests that parents may want to pay more attention to what appears on their TV set or tablet after all. A growing number of studies are finding links between children’s cognitive development and “adult-directed television” (think C.S.I., the evening news, or even PG-rated movies that have scary scenes). A study at Georgetown University, for example, gathered data on family media habits and tracked children’s growth over several years (Barr et al. 2010). It found that children who performed poorly on cognitive tests at age 4 were the same children who were put in front of adult-directed TV when they were 1 year old. Poor scores also were linked to the watching of these programs at age 4. One theory is that when watching adult-directed TV, children’s minds are in fact quite busy trying to figure out what is going on, but the scenes and characters are appearing faster than they can fully understand and mentally process given how little background knowledge they have to draw upon.

Research (Garrison & Christakis 2012) reported in the August 2012 issue of Pediatrics highlights another reason to pay attention to content: sleep schedules. Anyone with a young child understands how critical sleep can be—especially for parental sanity—so it’s worth examining whether exposure to violent content could interfere with bedtime and naptime. Using data from a randomized controlled trial with 565 families in Seattle, researchers Michelle Garrison and Dimitri Christakis at the University of Washington examined the impact of a parent-support program intended to help moms and dads choose age-appropriate and nonviolent media for their 3- to 5-year-olds.  

The program worked. Sleep problems declined for children of parents assigned to receive the support (coaching and educational materials) compared to those who didn’t. And the support was most effective for families that initially reported watching higher levels of violent media than other participating families. In other words, the mechanism for reducing sleep problems was the reduction in exposure to violent TV.

Assumption 5: E-books are distracting to young children.
What the research shows: It’s all about how they are used.

It’s true that many e-books for children come with so many bells and whistles that children merely click around on the screen without paying much attention to the storyline. It’s also true that some research has uncovered parents’ tendencies to focus on the technology (telling their kids when and where to click) and not the story when reading an e-book with their children. This is leading children to recall very little about what was read. In a small study conducted at Temple University, for example, “behavioral directives went through the roof” while reading comprehension sunk (Parish-Morris, Collins, & Hirsh-Pasek 2006).

But after reading these studies carefully, it becomes clear that at least two factors are at play: the design of the e-books and the behavior of the parents. Tackle these issues, and electronic books could be no different or better than printed books. Some e-book companies, for example, are designing picture e-books to favor highlighted text and engaging storylines over distracting playthings. As e-books become less of a novelty, parents may also become less inclined to order their children around on how to use them. A more positive approach to e-books, however, will require parents and educators to stress the importance of content, context, and the individual child (the Three C’s) in choosing media for our children.