According to many experts, young children shouldn't have much screen time. But tablets and smartphones are becoming so ubiquitous that those recommendations are starting to look unrealistic. Screen time isn't necessarily harmful for kids though.
There's a lot of research out there about kids and screen time, and I also turned to Clare Smith, an early language development researcher who is also a speech and language therapist, to get to the bottom of things. Here's what you need to know.
Not All Screen Time Is the Same
The AAP lumps tablets and smartphones together with TV and other devices when they dictate limits on "screen time". But a lot of the studies cited in support of those limits are specific to television and video games (especially violent ones). That's understandable, because television has been studied for a lot longer than smartphones and tablets, but it also glosses over serious differences between devices and what kids do with them.
"[I]t is tempting to draw conclusions from research into TV and computer use and I think the extent to which you can do that will depend on the question that is being asked," says Smith.
Television has been blamed for attention disorders in kids, but as Melinda Wenner-Moyer writes at Slate, the effects of those studies often disappear when researchers take other factors into account, such as socioeconomic status and the type of content. She writes: "I don't see Endless Alphabet and Grand Theft Auto as the same thing, and neither do media researchers."
Television is passive. Stuff happens, and you get to watch. The stuff that happens isn't personalised to you either. Somebody's grandma might be on TV, but it's not your grandma.
One of the paediatricians who authored the AAP's recommendations wrote in JAMA Pediatrics (careful to note that he was speaking for himself and not the AAP) that play on an iPad is far more similar to playing with blocks, or reading a book with a caregiver, than it is to passive TV watching. He writes:
In particular, caregivers should always ask themselves what their child would otherwise be doing were it not for the omni-available touch screen. For example, I cringe when I see families at restaurants together and each member has their eyes glued to their personal device, thereby bypassing an increasingly rare opportunity for familial engagement. On the other hand, given that 90% of children younger than the age of 2 years currently use television and DVDs regularly, there is the real possibility that interactive media will displace traditional media, which I would support at least from a harm reduction standpoint.
He concludes that touch screen devices are probably fine for kids under two, at about an hour a day, equivalent to the time they spend playing with traditional toys.
In their evidence-based recommendations, nonprofit Zero To Three advises against setting a time-based limit for interacting with screens, because the type of content is more important than how much time a child spends with it. They recommend that parents or caregivers talk with the kid about what they're watching, try to relate the content to the real world (perhaps acting out what you see on the screen) and continue the conversation during off-screen time, for example sorting laundry or toys by colour after playing a colouring game.
Make Sure Kids Get Real World Experiences
There's a huge range of things kids need to learn to thrive in real life. Toddlers need to watch faces, talk to people who are listening and can talk back, manipulate actual three dimensional objects, and so on. All kids, like adults, need to keep their social skills limber and be able to focus on tasks and learn good time management. So, while tablets aren't as bad as television, kids still need to develop these real-world skills.
Kids who spent time at a no-screens-allowed camp showed better social skills after just five days. While this was widely reported as a strike against screen time, the results may have more to do with what the kids did do than what they didn't: They spent time interacting with teams of their peers. Cory Turner writes at NPR:
What likely led to the improvement was the fact that, instead of texting or gaming, the students were working together, face-to-face, constantly decoding each other's expressions, voice tone and posture.
The take-home: Social skills require constant maintenance.
The good news, according to this study, is that we can improve those skills in relatively short order, with practice. The bad news is that screen time often comes at the expense of that vital face-to-face time.
And in some cases, apps can help social development. For example, a study published in Child Development found that while toddlers don't learn words well from passive TV watching, they did learn from a video chat with a real person as well as from real-life conversation.
That said, while app stores are heavy with games that claim to be educational, it's not clear that kids are learning much beyond how to make a particular game work.
Consider What Your Kid Is Learning
Phones and tablets are tools, not just toys. Kids see their parents using devices, so it's natural for them to want to learn too, and they can use devices for purposes other than vegging out.
For example, kids can learn to text and email family and friends, or video chat with family (which, as we saw above, they may perceive as more like real-life interaction than like TV). They can also learn to research their own questions. Siri and Google Now are great helpers for kids who can't yet type.
I asked Smith about her take on phones and tablets as tools and not just toys. She agreed:
We now live in a world where this technology opens up opportunities for extended social engagement, learning, work and leisure. In fact, it is becoming the norm, and our children will be expected to be proficient in this technology. It is just another form of media that can and should be used in whichever way an individual chooses. Choosing devices and apps is just the same as choosing toys or books, and each choice should be made on its own merits. My own children are embracing social networking and gaming and we are trying our best to guide them through the associated risks and benefits. Just as a conscientious parent teaches a child road safety, stranger danger, eating a healthy balanced diet and a disciplined approach to learning, so this may extend to learning about modern technology and the online world.
Kids will have to learn to use technology someday, so it's not unreasonable for them to explore this part of the world while they're young. But don't forget that when children get to school, computers will often be the desktop type. If you want to brag about how tech-savvy your kid is, take them to the public library and make sure they know how to use a mouse.
Bottom Line: Screen Time Isn't Harmful By Itself
"There is, as yet, no evidence of touch screen devices being damaging to very young children," says Smith.
While young children may not understand an ebook as well as a dead-tree book, she says studies about comprehension "highlight that children are likely to benefit from a range of different media in different ways, and recommend that parents are aware of the differences so they can use different tools and guide children accordingly."
With that in mind, let's take a look at what we know:
- Kids need plenty of time to explore the real world
- They don't necessarily learn as well from videos and apps as from interaction with people and things
- They need to practice social interaction to be good at social interaction (but remember that some apps help this goal, like Skype)
- Kids who get lots of screen time or who have devices near their bed tend to have sleep problems, but this is a two-way street: kids who can't sleep are more likely to watch videos at night. (Screens can interfere with sleep in adults too.)
- The internet, phones and tablets are part of the world kids are growing up in.
It's worth taking a good hard look at whether rampant screen time is making your kid miss out on things they need for healthy development, such as sleep and exercise and real-world play and social interaction with loving parents and caregivers.
So no, you're not necessarily a bad parent for letting your kid goof around on your phone, or even for buying her a tablet. It's all about the big picture.
Obviously, keeping screens away from kids is one way of making sure screens don't interfere with those good things, but it's not the only strategy. (You could argue that other obsessions, say an unusual addiction to books like I had as a kid, might pose similar problems even though they're not screen-related.)
Time-based limits on screens are another popular solution, but they're imperfect. Not all screen time is equivalent, and a kid who's getting plenty of good things in their life may not need to turn off the screen at one hour, as if an hour and a half were going to somehow damage them.
In fact, a kid who manages to get all the developmental good things in their life may not need limits at all. I know this may sound like crazy talk. Zero To Three argues that "without limits most children would use a tablet computer all day, eat only sweets, never go to sleep... the list goes on", but I personally haven't found this to be true. My kids don't have limits on their screen time, and they will voluntarily put down their tablets in favour of real-world toys or activities. I believe that's because they know they can pick the tablet up again whenever they want. The benefits of limiting screen time have to be balanced against the real risks of turning it into forbidden fruit.