The effects of television on children was the focus of my academic studies as a graduate student at University of Michigan, the research I conducted at Harvard Project Zero, and my work in social research and broadcast standards at ABC Television Network. As a parent, I watched my share of TV with my son, making sure to discuss what we were seeing on the news, helping to interpret the messages from entertainment programs and harnessing them as teachable moments. I pointed out how commercials try to influence our buying behavior and our attitudes towards what we eat and drink, what we play with, and the difference between what we “need” vs. “want” as consumers. As he got older, a greater variety of screens and handheld electronic devices began to be invented and become readily available and we incorporated them into our family repertoire of technologies. We were aware of what computer and video games he was playing, and we noticed when and how he was connecting on the internet via social media.
What I always knew, from my own experience and from my professional expertise, was that media was, and would always be, a significant force in my child’s life, especially because he is a “digital native” — the millennial generation that never knew life without television, personal computers, smart phones, and other handheld digital devices. What I also knew was that it was my job as a parent to understand the role that screens and technology — and the content they deliver — play in his life, and to help him understand how and when to use various media responsibly and in their appropriate context.
Historically, the American Academy of Pediatrics has had strict guidelines and recommendations for children’s “screen time” and use of digital technology. I consider their latest guidelines to be more realistic and practical as they acknowledge a variety of media’s usefulness in our children’s lives, while keeping them in perspective within the total range of activities in which we need to engage in everyday in order to flourish.
It’s our role as parents to guide our children to use media and technology responsibly and in developmentally appropriate contexts, for learning, communicating and connecting to others. At the same time, it’s our role to help them balance their time (and ours) interacting with electronic screens with activities and social interactions where they engage directly with family, friends, teachers, nature, and the world around them.
Here are the AAP’s key messages to “inform and empower families,” as outlined in their recent article entitled “‘Beyond turn it off’: How to advise families on media use,” which was generated from their 2015 Growing Up Digital symposium on media research:
- Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually. Like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects.
- Parenting has not changed. The same parenting rules apply to your children’s real and virtual environments. Play with them. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Teach kindness. Be involved. Know their friends and where they are going with them.
- Role modeling is critical. Limit your own media use, and model online etiquette. Attentive parenting requires face time away from screens.
- We learn from each other. Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best via two-way communication. “Talk time” between caregiver and child remains critical for language development. Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers. The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold (e.g., a toddler chatting by video with a parent who is traveling). Optimal educational media opportunities begin after age 2, when media may play a role in bridging the learning achievement gap.
- Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer.
- Curation helps. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research validates their quality. An interactive product requires more than “pushing and swiping” to teach. Look to organizations like Common Sense Media that review age-appropriate apps, games and programs.
- Co-engagement counts. Family participation with media facilitates social interactions and learning. Play a video game with your kids. Your perspective influences how your children understand their media experience. For infants and toddlers, co-viewing is essential.
- Playtime is important. Unstructured playtime stimulates creativity. Prioritize daily unplugged playtime, especially for the very young.
- Set limits. Tech use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Does your child’s technology use help or hinder participation in other activities?
- It’s OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are integral to adolescent development. Social media can support identity formation. Teach your teen appropriate behaviors that apply in both the real and online worlds. Ask teens to demonstrate what they are doing online to help you understand both content and context.
- Create tech-free zones. Preserve family mealtime. Recharge devices overnight outside your child’s bedroom. These actions encourage family time, healthier eating habits and healthier sleep.
- Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. These can be teachable moments if handled with empathy. Certain aberrations, however, such as sexting or posting self-harm images, signal a need to assess youths for other risk-taking behaviors.
“Children who are growing up digital should learn healthy concepts of ‘digital citizenship.'”
“Digital life begins at a young age, and so must parental guidance.”
– American Academy of Pediatrics (2015)