Kids & Language: The Cost of Screen Time

If you want your child to be an engineer, don’t get her an iPad, get her a set of blocks.”family focused on screen time rather than eachother

More of your FAQS on children and reading. This one focuses on the impact of screen time such as apps, videos, TV, etc. (Click here to check out yesterday’s blog.)

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With screens practically woven into the fabric of our daily lives, what has the impact been on children and families?

Honestly, it is a blessing and a curse. While there are obvious benefits, there are also unique challenges to parenting in the digital age.

Even though the nation’s pediatricians discourage ‘passive’ screen time in kids under age two, most parents ignore this advice. More than 90% of U.S. children under age 2 watch recorded video programs 1-2 hours a day. Some parents may say, “What’s the harm? Has Elmo ever killed a toddler?” No, but what is the cost?

Many shows implicitly or explicitly market themselves as educational. And parents believe it. But here’s the thing…video content gets lost in translation. Young children don’t understand the content in the CONTEXT of a screen.  There’s a great study done on infants who watched Teletubbies played forward and backwards. The babies laughed either way they watched it. But, young kids are sensorimotor learners —they need real people, real things to learn.

Apps, too

This is why we also have some concern about screen time with interactive media. Even though there are some very cool apps for kids, a child needs to have two blocks in her hands to figure out how to stack one on top of the other. If you want your child to be an engineer, don’t get her an iPad, get her a set of blocks.

The AAP has our position on screen time because we know that there are no educational benefits, and there is potential risk. Children under age two who watch a moderate amount of TV or other screens have language delays. Even an 18 month old watching a truly educational show like Sesame Street will have fewer vocabulary words because he can’t understand the show. Entertaining, yes. Educational, no. Kids over age two who watch Sesame Street DO gain language and pro-social skills.

One-third of parents also resort to using ‘screen time’ as a sleep aid for their kids. 30% of kids under 3 years of age have a TV in their bedroom. What happened to reading bedtime stories?

Then, there is parental screen time. When a parent is watching a screen, “talk time” goes down by 85%—and we know how important talk time is for children’s emerging language and social development.

A recent study looked at parental smartphone use during a meal with their kids at fast food restaurants. ¾ of those observed pulled out their phones during the meal and completed disconnected from their kids. The study authors called this behavior “Present Absence.” As you might expect, many of the kids started to act out to get the parent’s attention.

Ari Brown, MD

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