In May 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics convened an invitation-only symposium titled Growing Up Digital. Its goal was to reconsider the Academy’s advice on “screen time” and make sure that its policies were “science-driven, not based merely on the precautionary principle.” (“Beyond ‘turn it off’: How to advice families on media use,” Brown et al. AAP News, October 2015). Driven by the concern that the current AAP advice was becoming obsolete and as a result likely to be ignored by parents faced with the realities of our digital culture, the participants investigated the available data on “early learning, game-based learning, social/emotional and developmental concerns, and strategies to foster digital citizenship.”
Their findings have been distilled into a collection of “key messages” for parents published in the October, 2015 AAP News. It’s hard to argue with most of the common sense advice that includes “Role modeling is critical; playtime is important; co-engagement counts; set limits; and create tech-free zones.” A set of formal recommendations is in the works and will be published at a later date.
It is comforting to learn of the academy’s concern to keep its advice current and evidence-based. It is frustrating for those of us expected to deliver the party line when we suspect that parents are muttering to themselves, “Really?” I assume that most pediatricians at the parent/doctor interface will join me in welcoming much of the more nuanced advice in the final recommendations, particularly those for older children and adolescents.
However, if the new document is not carefully worded and promoted, I fear that the potent message of “no screen time under age 2” will be lost or diluted. While the symposium participants may have uncovered some evidence of benefit or at least no serious harm from some digital platforms, does this warrant softening the catchy and clear advice of “no screen time under 2?” I have to ask myself when would a child under the age of 2 being raised in a healthy environment have time for electronic distraction?
As Dr. Ari Brown, Dr. Donald L. Shifrin, and Dr. David L. Hill ask parents in their AAP News piece, “Does your child’s technology use help or hinder participation in other activities?” Just doing a little quick math: Wake up at 7 a.m., breakfast, playground time, maybe a midmorning nap, snack, lunch, afternoon nap, afternoon playground time, maybe another snack, dinner, bedtime story and lights out at 7 p.m. I don’t see a spot to shoehorn in some screen time without eliminating a developmentally and socially important activity. You could replace the hard cover book at bedtime with an electronic one on a tablet, but in my experience that runs the risk of replacing a soporific activity with one that is too visually stimulating.
One could argue that depriving a young child of screen time is going to put him behind his peers who have become masterful web navigators by the time they are 18 months. Rubbish. The learning curve for most electronic devices is so short that the “deprived” child will catch up in a couple of dozen clicks. However, screens require little more than a moving and tapping index finger. What about those other manipulative skills and the strength and coordination of the muscles sitting unused during screen time?
Unfortunately, the crafters of these new guidelines have repeated the same mistake the academy has made before when they observe, “The quality of the content is more important than the platform or time spent with media.” In my opinion, if the time spent on a screen is kept sufficiently short, children won’t squander it on bad stuff for very long nor will what they see be that harmful. Burdening parents with the task of determining quality is unrealistic. However, setting a time limit is far more workable and enforceable.
Finally, when it comes to parents enforcing no screen time under 2, everyone knows that Skyping with Grandma and Grandpa gets a free pass.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping With a Picky Eater.” Email him at email@example.com.