Toddlers and digital media — don’t let the new guidelines fool you

Due to the body of research available on the potential harms of screen time on the developing toddler brain, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long had the stance that infants and toddlers under two should not be exposed to any screen time. They also recommend a limit of no more than one hour of screen time a day for kids ages two to five. 

But with the advancements in technology, it’s becoming more and more intertwined with daily life. Therefore, it is becoming harder to avoid, which can make maintaining firm boundaries more difficult for parents.

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The body of research widely known in the scientific community has shown that toddlers under two years old are, by and large, unable to transfer any knowledge they may pick up from a screen to the real world. So any time spent watching a screen, be it on TV, a tablet, a phone, or a computer is time taken away from doing what really benefits their development — play.

Kids learn and develop best through play. They learn about engineering, like balancing blocks. They develop their fine and gross motor skills. They learn social skills like how to enter ongoing play and how to negotiate their desires and needs. They learn to problem solve. Play should be the the number one part job of kids, whether they are one, four or seven.

Kids are now entering kindergarten with less fine motor skills than in generations past, and this has become a big problem for teachers. Kids are not ready to cut with scissors or write the letters of the alphabet. Teachers are finding they need to do more work to help these children catch up. Research suggests that this is, at least in part, due to the prevalence of too much time on tablets in these preschool years, which is taking away time from play that would otherwise develop fine motor skills needed for cutting and pencil gripping.

However, considering the way screens are making their way into daily life including communication, the AAP has loosened the guidelines ever so slightly. The new guidelines state that children under two can now have some screen time but only for video chatting with a relative with whom they cannot interact regularly in person. Have a grandparent who lives far away or a parent on a business trip or in the military?

Let your toddler say hello! Since relationships are so important to the development of the human brain, maintaining and strengthening these connections becomes more important than avoiding a screen for a few minutes.

For children 18 to 24 months, the AAP says it’s okay to play a quick game or watch high-quality programming, so long as it’s with the toddler. They are very specific about no solo use by the toddler under 24 months.

As an expert in human relationships, with a master’s degree in psychology specializing in family dynamics and child development, my position is that relationships are key. A strong bond between a child and any positive adult figure is of the utmost importance, whether it’s grandma who lives too far away to visit regularly or a parent who is away for more than a couple of days, and digital devices can play a vital role in maintaining and even building these relationships.

However, the use of digital devices is so insidious and setting and maintaining boundaries is hard enough, that's why the later we wait to introduce kids to screens, whether it’s games or TV shows, the better. I would rather see parents and caregivers wait until at least three before introducing TV shows, even if it’s high-quality like Sesame Street. I also would encourage parents to wait as long as possible before adding tablets to the mix.

By as long as possible, I mean age five at a minimum but even better, seven or eight years old. Tablets can have some significant benefits but few families are using them for these benefits. The longer kids wait, the more time they have to build other positive habits for ways to spend their time, like reading, writing stories, imaginative play and even helping around the house.

Parents need to be very careful not to use these devices as a babysitting tool, especially during times that are meant to be highly social like in a restaurant, or shopping at the grocery store. I’ve been to birthday parties where almost every kid is sitting on a tablet playing a game. It’s a very sad thing to see. I know that parenting can be exhausting. I have three kids 20 months apart (our twins were born when our oldest was 20 months old).

But kids need to learn how to sit and socialize at the table during mealtimes. They need to learn how to interact, behave and entertain themselves while waiting to order or for dinner without turning into a game on a screen. They need practice. Without practice, they will never learn and will likely turn into adults who only know how to stare at their phone during a dinner date.

However, tablets have been shown to have a positive impact on kids diagnosed with spectrum disorders, particularly in areas such as speech and communication as well as helping to manage anxiety that can come from over-stimulation.

That said, spectrum disorders are not my area of expertise, so a parent who wants to know more about how to positively use tablets for these areas should discuss this with their physician or therapist for recommendations.

When it comes to kids and digital media, my biggest reason for strongly urging parents to be well informed about the effects of these devices on child development is that internet gaming addiction is becoming a growing problem among youth, most common among boys ages 12 to 20.

Although, not yet an official mental health disorder, it is an area for which the American Psychiatric Association (APA) requested more research to be done. This addiction can lead to academic failure, social deficits, criminal activity, and even death.

Digital media devices have not been shown to increase skills in early childhood that cannot be gained in more interactive ways. Device availability for most children is so prevalent, and internet gaming addiction is starting to become a very real problem for American youth, as such the problem will likely increase until there is a lot more awareness. For these reasons and more, I feel strongly that boundaries around media usage need to be highly regulated by parents and other caregivers, especially during these early years.

Erin Royer-Asrilant is founder and president of Your Village, a one-stop parenting resource with on-demand video classes addressing parenting challenges for infants through teens. Erin earned a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in child development and family dynamics. Through her work in Burbank schools and the Family Service Agency of Burbank, Erin helped children and their families overcome many struggles. She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and three children.


 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.