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The American Academy of Pediatrics has just come out with a slew of new recommendations regarding media exposure – screen time – for children.
As a parent of small children who <gasp> lets them watch TV, this is an issue that is close to my heart. Sure – on the face of it, it seems like zoning out in front of the TV is a bad thing – but what does the data really show? Is television putting America through a process of dumbening? Is dumbening even a word?
I'm focusing here on the infant to 5-year-old age group, a time when minds are still getting congealed from the chaotic goo that we are all born with. Teenagers are a topic for another time, and let's be honest, getting them away from their phones is going to take much more than the earnest chastisement of a stats nerd.
So what do we know about young kids and screens? There's been some decent research, but I'll highlight a few studies that are particularly telling.
Let's start with babies.
An interesting study examined whether infants at 15 months could learn a new skill on a touch screen.
It will surprise no parent of a 15 month old that they could. They had to push a button on a picture of a toy to make a corresponding sound. Most of them could learn to do this. But when presented with an identical toy in the real-world, very few could transfer what they learned.
Studies like this show that, though an infant may appear to be interacting successfully with a smartphone or tablet, they lack the ability to translate that knowledge. It's like learning to solve a Rubik's cube. Cool, yes. But useful? Not really.
The AAP has used data along these lines to argue that under the age of 18 months, children really shouldn't be exposed to screens at all.
Though they do carve out an exception for video chat.
There's no data on this yet, except to say that a lot of people do it.
But this one feels like it should get a pass. Kids need to talk to their grandparents.
How about the older kids – the 2 to 5 year olds?
The observational data is pretty solid that watching more TV is associated with higher weight, though this is likely due more to food advertising and eating in front of the TV than being sedentary.
There’s also pretty good evidence that watching more TV reduces the amount of sleep kids get, but to be honest, the effect seems to be pretty small. In this study appearing in Pediatrics, each additional hour of TV watching was associated with 7 minutes less sleep per night.
Finally, it seems like more media use is associated with lower executive function in kids.
Though I will point out in this study that type of TV mattered. Watching more PBS was associated with better executive function. Thanks Big Bird.
But all these studies are observational. What about randomized trials that look at changing TV exposure?
There’s not a ton there. There are plenty of studies examining methods to reduce TV exposure, and, as you’d expect, it can be done. But does it actually matter?
A large trial appearing in JAMA did show that reducing television exposure could reduce BMIs in kids.
The overall effect was small – with four hours less television per week, the kids in the intervention group gained half a BMI point less than the control kids over 6 months. But interventions like this could have significant population-wide effects.
Another study, appearing in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, demonstrated that reducing media exposure time was associated with small, but significant decreases in aggressive behavior.
Finally, one study appearing in pediatrics that caught my eye was a randomized trial that didn't try to reduce screen time, they just replaced what the kids were watching with better stuff.
Specifically, they randomized 565 children to keep watching their usual shows, or to watch more "pro-social" shows like Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and Super Why.
Six months later, the kids randomized to watch the pro-social shows had greater improvements in standardized social competence and behavioral scales.
Obviously, I don't have the time to share all the research out there looking at screen time and kids, but there are a couple of themes.
First, kids shouldn’t be sitting around watching TV all day, though it isn’t really clear how much is too much. Certainly, while they’re sitting around watching TV they should NOT be eating. When they watch, they should watch good stuff. My kids love the power puff girls. That’s probably not a good thing.
But there is one factor I’ve never seen addressed in any of these studies: parental sanity. I’ll be honest and say that, especially when my wife is at work late, and I have the three kids home by myself, I am very thankful that I can sit them in front of the TV while I do dishes and clean up. Those few quiet moments, I’m convinced, make me a better parent when the TV is off. And there is plenty of data to suggest that happy parents raise happy kids.