iGood, the iBad, and the iUgly of Screen Time for Young Children

Early Childhood Interventions March 02, 2015

When I was a youngster we had two screens in our house: a television screen and the screen door. Now with computers, laptops, iPods, iPads, iPhones, and everything else that begin with the letter “i” in its name, screens are ubiquitous in our children’s lives.

I could not believe my eyes as I watched my 4 year old cousin unwrap her touch screen cellphone Christmas morning of last year. Unfortunately for her she is unable to make quick phone calls during circle time, for the device does not have a service plan, it is only wifi enabled. But that does not stop her from taking selfies all day long. Although she cannot read yet, I find that since she started tapping away on her touch screen device her digital literacy has increased tremendously. She can associate the symbols of the ‘back’ button to their corresponding functions.

Clearly, young kids find electronic devices engaging. But what happens when you put one of these devices in the hands of a child under the age 2? Here is the iGood, the iBad, and the iUgly of these media devices; and the actions professionals suggest parents take to make sure their children get only the iBest out of their media experiences.

Sandra Calvert the Director of Georgetown University’s Children’s Media Center (http://cdmc.georgetown.edu/) reports that four major tends have emerged from the research undertaken over the last decade on children’s use of media:

  1. there is an increasing amount of child oriented media available,
  2. there is an increase in the development and use of media for very young children (under 2 years of age),
  3. there is an increase in multitasking even for young children, and
  4. interactive media platforms are easier to use even for very young children.

We all recognize that media is here to stay but what does the research say about young children’s use of media. According to Common Sense Media (2011):

  • 65% of children under 8 watch TV every day. Preschoolers average 2 hours/day.
  • 66% of children under 2 are exposed to TV content.
  • 30% of 6 month-24 month old infants and toddlers have a TV in their room. This suggests that very young children are watching video content alone.
  • 37% of children under 2 are exposed to screen media every day.
  • 21% of children use 2 use a computer (calvert, Rideout, Woolard, Barr, & Strouse, 2005)

According to PBS (2014) 18% of infants and toddlers spend the day watching either videos or DVDs. In fact, children of this age group spend double the amount of time with screens as they do reading books (PBS, 2014). That is too much Sesame, and not enough Seuss.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against screen time for infants and toddlers under the age of 2. Physicians believe that children learn best when interacting with people, not iPods. But in this age of ubiquitous media use is this realistic or even necessary? The key to media use as a benefit to young children is how it is used. And like all toys or tools young children benefit from their use when they are used interactively with another person. It seems no matter what—children still learn best person to person even if media is incorporated into the interaction.

A series of studies showed how 2 year olds find it challenging integrating information from a video and applying it to real life situations (Troseth, 2006). On the other hand, Troseth Has also found that Skype may actually be beneficial. Although a Skype call does include a screen, there is an active component to the call and the active interaction between the child and who is on the screen can be beneficial to a child’s development. Troseth believes that Skype calls, with a parent or grandparent, show children that what is on the screen is connected to their lives and builds upon social interaction (HU, 2013).  Thus, beneficial screen time includes an active interaction in real time with another person.

Other research (Calvert, Richards, Kent, 2014) indicates that when toddlers are exposed to media characters who were personalized they learned more from those characters than the non-personalized ones. The children exposed to the personalized characters also showed more parasocial, nurturing behaviors during play sessions,

Although adults are encouraged to interact with young children without electronic devices, the reality is that young children are growing up in the digital age and they find these devices attractive. So can parents call on technology to support development? According to National Association of the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) we should “allow children to explore digital materials in the context of human interactions, with an adult as mediator and co-player” (NAEYC). Too often, children are using the technology in isolation. Too often, parents are using the technology as a “teacher” not as a tool to assist the parent as teacher.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center has developed a list of ways parents can use media to engage with their children:

  • Use a digital camera or computer to show images and video of family, friends, animals, or events to children, especially when children might not otherwise have exposure to them. Talk to the child about the pictures, who the people are, the sights, etc.
  • Treat the experience of reading an e-book the same as reading a print book: put the child in your lap, point to objects on screen, talk with the child, and introduce new vocabulary.
  • Video chat with a loved one.

So—what about children with disabilities? How does this research apply to children with disabilities? What do you think? What does your experience tell you? How do you coach families to use assistive technology? Does the AAP recommendations hold-up? If my 4 year old cousin is typical, then screens are here to stay—How do we control the screen?

Let’s start a dialogue! 

References

Calvert, S. L., & Wartella, E. A. (2014). Children and electronic media. In E.T. Gershoff, R.S. Mistry, D.A. Crosby (Eds.).Societal contexts of child development: Pathways of influence and implications for practice and policy, (pp.175-187), New York: Oxford University Press.

Calvert, S. L., Richards, M. N., & Kent, C. C. (2014). Personalized interactive characters for toddlers’ learning of seriation from a video presentation. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology35(3), 148-155.

Calvert, S.L., Rideout, V.J., Woolard, J.L., Barr, R.F. & Strouse, G.A. (2005). Age,

ethnicity, and socioeconomic patterns in early computer use: A national survey.

American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 590-607.

Common Sense Media. (2011, October 25). Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America. Retrieved October 13, 2014. 

Hu, E. (2014, October 28). What You Need To Know About Babies, Toddlers And Screen Time. Retrieved October 13, 2014. 

PBS. (n.d.). TV and Kids under Age 3. Retrieved October 13, 2014. 

Technology and Young Children | National Association for the Education of Young Children | NAEYC. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2014. 

Troseth, G., Saylor, M., & Archer, A. (2006). Young Children’s Use Of Video As A Source Of Socially Relevant Information. Child Development, 786-799.  

Walter Kelly,
Georgetown University, COL’16