Toddlers and Touchscreens: What Does the Research Actually Say? (Marnie Kaplan)

“Prior to joining Bellwether, Marnie [Kaplan] worked as a policy analyst at Success Academy Charter Schools, where she analyzed local, state, and federal education policies. Previously she worked as a program manager at the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she tracked and analyzed special education compliance, and as a Stoneleigh Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Education Law Center, where she proposed solutions to reform Pennsylvania’s alternative education system and improve the accountability of cyber charter schools. Marnie began her career as a middle school English and social studies teacher in New York City. She went on to earn her M.P.P. and J.D. from Georgetown University. While in graduate school, Marnie interned at the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the DC Public Schools’ Urban Education Leaders Internship Program; taught street law to high school students; worked in a day care center; volunteered with 826DC; and served as a research assistant to the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Marnie also holds a master’s in the science of teaching from Pace University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania” (Bio taken from Bellwether staff descriptions)

This post appeared December 8, 2016 in Ahead of the Heard, A Bellwether blog.

 

 

 

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You walk by an outdoor restaurant and see a toddler watching a movie on an iPad while his parents eat dinner. Your first thought is:

  • a) those parents deserve a break
  • b) screens don’t belong at meal time
  • c) is the video educational?
  • d) alert: bad parenting

Is there an app to help us decide how to respond? No. But a quorum of pediatricians might be able to help.

From 1999 till 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraged the use of screen media by children under two (which might have led an informed passerby to loosely circle answer d while feeling slightly judgmental). But just last month, the AAP departed from its previous strict restriction on screen exposure for this age group.

There was a lot of media attention heralding the departure from the “no screens under two rule.” Some celebrated the beginning of the end of the “screen wars.” In reality, while the new guidelines offer a more nuanced view of screen exposure, the debate will likely rage on. Screens continue to pervade modern life so rapidly that research can’t keep up.

Let me fill in some background on why the AAP changed its recommendations. The “no screens before two” rule was first issued in 1999 as a response to interactive videos for infants such as Baby Einstein. Research showed these videos decreased children’s executive functioning and cognitive development. In October 2011, the AAP reaffirmed its original statement regarding infants and toddlers and media. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age two, studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems, and studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. Since this statement was developed through  a lengthy internal review process, it was drafted before the iPad was first introduced to the market in April of 2010. So for the last five years, the strict restriction on screen time included touch screens even though the committee hadn’t evaluated the emerging research on this media.

In the intervening years, many doctors and scientists urged the AAP committee on children and media to revisit their recommendations and take a more balanced approach to media. In 2014, Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, urged experts to base their recommendations on evidence-based decision making instead of values or opinions. He criticized pediatricians for focusing too much on negative effects and overlooking the positive effects of media on children. Later that year, Dr. Dimitri Christikas, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at University of Washington, suggested rethinking the guidelines to distinguish between TV and interactive screens. Dr. Christikas was one of the first researchers to determine that the time babies and toddlers spend in front of the TV was detrimental to their health and development. He posited that the time young children spend interacting with touch screens is more analogous to time playing with blocks than time passively watching a television. In 2015, a trio of pediatricians published an article offering further support for the idea that interactive media necessitated different guidelines than television. In the same article, they recognizing the need for further research and argued that doctors should emphasize the benefits of parents and children using interactive media together.

So what are a quorum of pediatricians saying in 2016?

The new AAP guidelines still set rather strict restrictions for children under eighteen months. The AAP recommends that infants and toddlers only be exposed to screens for the purpose of video chatting with family members. This squares with some emerging observational research but likely also displays pediatricians’ understanding of modern life. The new AAP guidelines say parents can introduce children between 18 and 24 months to education shows. For children between the ages of two and five, the AAP recommends a max of one hour per day of “high-quality programs,” which they define as PBS and Sesame Network.

But there remains a lot that pediatricians, neuroscientists, and developmental psychologists cannot say conclusively. How does a small child clamoring to watch videos of herself affect a child’s conception of self?  Does the sensory experience of interactive screens have negative effects on small children’s brains?

Scientists continue to approach the research regarding long-term effects of this exposure from different perspectives. In fact, earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, new research was presented which hinted at the possible detrimental effects of touch screens on young brains. Dr. Jan Marino Ramirez, from the Center for Integrative Brain Research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, presented new research which revealed that excessive exposure to sensory stimulation early in life had significant effects on the behavior and brain circuits of mice. The mice acted like they had attention deficit disorder (ADD), showed signs of learning problems, and engaged in risky behavior. Ramirez therefore recommends minimizing screen time for young children. In a recent interview, Dr. Leah Krubitzer, an evolutionary neurobiologist at University of California, Davis, was less concerned about the detrimental impacts of screen time. She believes the benefits may outweigh the negative effects. Krubitzer argues that fast-moving interactive touch screens may prepare children for our increasingly fast-paced world.

So, parents of young children can now feel less guilty encouraging their toddlers to video chat with family across the country. And possibly we have a more clear answer for the scenario above (e.g., If the child is at least two years old, the appropriate response is c, at least for now).

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7 Comments

Filed under medicine and schooling, preschool, raising children, research, technology

7 responses to “Toddlers and Touchscreens: What Does the Research Actually Say? (Marnie Kaplan)

  1. David

    Hi Larry,

    Just for more context, see here from the lead researcher who developed the guidelines, Jenny Radesky at Michigan: https://theconversation.com/how-should-we-teach-our-kids-to-use-digital-media-67446

    And this as a dissenting view from Brigitte Vitrup at Texas Women’s University: https://theconversation.com/why-its-wrong-for-pediatricians-to-eliminate-daily-screen-time-recommendations-49408

    What I find distressing in Radesky’s item is that she treats technology as a neutral tool: “We hope parents will feel comfortable seeing digital media as a tool to meet their parenting needs, and not the thing-in-itself that controls us or our children through the attention economy or gamification.” The problem is that technology–devices, software, web applications, etc.–is never neutral. It always reflects the desires, goals, and biases of its designers. In the case of the majority of devices being peddled in school or to children, rarely is the principle goal to educate. Rather it is almost always to consume something, and the devices purposefullly distract to enhance consumption.

    And what is the opportunity cost of more screentime? I fear that it is reading for pleasure. Dr. Pasi Sahlberg in an interview about FInland’s PISA slide says this:

    Finland used to have the best primary school readers in the world until the early 2000s, but not any more. Pisa test items rely heavily on the test-taker’s reading comprehension. Appearance of handheld technologies like smartphones among school-aged children in this decade has probably accelerated this trend.

    Second, rapidly increased “screen time” with media is often eating into the time spent with books and reading in general. According to some national statistics, most teenagers in Finland spend more than four hours a day on the Internet (not including time with TV) and the number of heavy Internet and other media users (more than eight hours a day) is increasing just as it is doing in the United States, Canada and beyond.

    Emerging research on how the Internet affects the brain – and thereby learning – suggests three principal consequences: shallower information processing, increased distractibility and altered self-control mechanisms. If this is true, there is reason to believe increasing use of digital technologies for communication, interaction and entertainment will make concentration on complex conceptual issues, like those in maths and science, more difficult. Interestingly, most countries are witnessing this same phenomenon of digital distraction among youth.

    http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/education/whats-behind-finlands-pisa-slide

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  3. Hi Larry,

    Thank you for the write-up. This has been an area of interest for me. I think quite a lot of the advice surrounding screen time can border on the hysterical and is actually lacking in evidence. I recently wrote this to try and provide a little balance and context. It is based on research by the London School of Economics and it introduced me to something I had not heard about before: the scientific pile-on effect! I hope it’s useful to you and/or your readers.

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