Watching TV while a parent is busy: Video screen time has no educational benefits for young children, a report says.
Parents of infants and toddlers should limit the time their children spend in front of televisions, computers, self-described educational games and even grown-up shows playing in the background, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned on Tuesday. Video screen time provides no educational benefits for children under age 2 and leaves less room for activities that do, like interacting with other people and playing, the group said.
The recommendation, announced at the group’s annual convention in Boston, is less stringent than its first such warning, in 1999, which called on parents of young children to all but ban television watching for children under 2 and to fill out a “media history” for doctor’s office visits. But it also makes clear that there is no such thing as an educational program for such young children, and that leaving the TV on as background noise, as many households do, distracts both children and adults.
“We felt it was time to revisit this issue because video screens are everywhere now, and the message is much more relevant today that it was a decade ago,” said Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Tex., and the lead author of the academy’s policy, which appears in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Dr. Brown said the new policy was less restrictive because “the Academy took a lot of flak for the first one, from parents, from industry, and even from pediatricians asking, ‘What planet do you live on?’ ” The recommendations are an attempt to be more realistic, given that, between TVs, computers, iPads and smartphones, households may have 10 or more screens.
The worry that electronic entertainment is harmful to development goes back at least to the advent of radio and has steadily escalated through the age of “Gilligan’s Island” and 24-hour cable TV to today, when nearly every child old enough to speak is plugged in to something while their parents juggle iPads and texts. So far, there is no evidence that exposure to any of these gadgets causes long-term developmental problems, experts say.
Still, recent research makes it clear that young children learn a lot more efficiently from real interactions — with people and things — than from situations appearing on video screens. “We know that some learning can take place from media” for school-age children, said Georgene Troseth, a psychologist at Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, “but it’s a lot lower, and it takes a lot longer.”
Unlike school-age children, infants and toddlers “just have no idea what’s going on” no matter how well done a video is, Dr. Troseth said.
The new report strongly warns parents against putting a TV in a very young child’s room and advises them to be mindful of how much their own use of media is distracting from playtime. In some surveys between 40 and 60 percent of households report having a TV on for much of the day — which distracts both children and adults, research suggests.
“What we know from recent research on language development is that the more language that comes in — from real people — the more language the child understands and produces later on,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University.
After the academy’s recommendation was announced, the video industry said parents, not professional organizations, were the best judges. Dan Hewitt, a spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association, said in an e-mail that the group has a “long and recognized record of educating parents about video game content and emphasizing the importance of parental awareness and engagement.”
“We believe that parents should be actively involved in determining the media diets of their children,” he said.
Few parents of small children trying to get through a day can resist plunking the youngsters down in front of the screen now and then, if only so they can take a shower — or check their e-mail.
“We try very hard not to do that, but because both me and my husband work, if we’re at home and have to take a work call, then yes, I’ll try to put her in front of ‘Sesame Street’ for an hour,” Kristin Gagnier, a postdoctoral researcher in Philadelphia, said of her 2-year-old daughter. “But she only stays engaged for about 20 minutes.”
In one survey, 90 percent of parents said their children under 2 watched some from of media, whether a TV show like “Yo Gabba Gabba!” or a favorite iPhone app. While some studies find correlations between overall media exposure and problems with attention and language, no one has determined for certain which comes first.
The new report from the pediatrics association estimates that for every hour a child under 2 spends in front of a screen, he or she spends about 50 minutes less interacting with a parent, and about 10 percent less time in creative play. It recommends that doctors discuss setting “media limits” for babies and toddlers with parents, though it does not specify how much time is too much.
“As always, the children who are most at risk are exactly the very many children in our society who have the fewest resources,” Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, said in an e-mail.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 22, 2011
Because of an editing error, an article on Wednesday about a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents limit television time for infants and toddlers described incorrectly the professional credentials of Kristin Gagnier, who said she and her husband only occasionally let their 2-year-old daughter watch “Sesame Street.” She is a postdoctoral researcher at Temple University, not a postgraduate student.