PLAYBACK: A Nuanced Look at Technology use in Early Childhood

Filed in: Family, Media Literacy, Safety

Filed by Sarah Jackson


10.28.11 | Despite pediatricians’ warnings that screen media is not healthy for children under age 2, new data finds toddlers and even infants are spending an increased amount of time watching television and viewing media on smartphones, tablets and other gadgets. We take a look at what the experts are saying.

More Screen Time Than Ever: Children under 8 are spending more time than ever before in front of media screens, according to a new study released this week from Common Sense Media. The report is based on an online survey of a representative sample of 1,384 parents of children ranging in age from infant to 8 years old.

The New York Times summarizes the findings:

The study found that fully half of children under 8 had access to a mobile device like a smartphone, a video iPod, or an iPad or other tablet. Of course, television is still the elephant in the children’s media room, accounting for the largest share of their screen time: about half of children under 2 watch TV or DVDs on a typical day, according to the study, and those who do spend an average of almost two hours in front of the screen. Among all children under 2, the average is 53 minutes a day of television or DVDs — more than twice the 23 minutes a day the survey found children are read to.

And almost a third of children under 2 have televisions in their bedrooms, a substantial increase from 2005, when the Kaiser Foundation found that 19 percent of children ages 6 months to 23 months had them. In families with annual incomes under $30,000, the new study found, 64 percent of children under 8 had televisions in their rooms, compared with 20 percent in families with incomes above $75,000.

Computers are common as well: about 12 percent of children 2 to 4 use them every day, and 24 percent at least once a week, the study found; among those 5 to 8, 22 percent use a computer daily, 46 percent more once a week. On average, the children who use computers started doing so at age 3 ½.

This new data comes despite more than a decade of warnings from the American Academy of Pediatrics that screen time is not recommended and may be harmful for kids under 2, the most recent of which was released last week.

“Part of it may be wishful thinking,” Victoria Rideout, the study’s author, told The New York Times. “Parents like their media, and it’s really tough to resist the lure of putting your kid in front of something that purports to be educational and will keep them occupied.”

The study is part of a new multi-year research effort at Common Sense Media directed by Rideout, a senior adviser to the organization. You can down load the full study at Common Sense Media.

Doctor’s Orders: The AAP’s new policy statement, “Media Use by Children Younger Than Two Years,” updates its widely quoted 1999 position statement that recommended children under 2 avoid TV viewing entirely. This new policy uses softer language, recommending parents and caregivers “set media limits for their children before age 2.”

But more importantly, the group found no evidence that video or other screen media has educational value for children under age 2. This advice is in stark contrast to the messages from marketers of educational apps, videos, and TV programming. The advertising is persistent, even years after Disney had to admit their Baby Einstein video series had been fraudulently marketed as educational under threat of a class action lawsuit.

The AAP also finds that media can have a negative effect on this age group by taking kids away from social interactions and unstructured play time, both of which are crucial to young brain development.

More from the AAP’s policy statement:
“Unstructured play time is more valuable for the developing brain than electronic media. Children learn to think creatively, problem solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills at early ages through unstructured, unplugged play. Free play also teaches them how to entertain themselves.”

Beyond Good vs. Bad:  There were several thoughtful posts on this issue from Daniel Donahoo, blogging at Wired. First, in a critique of the video currently making the rounds on YouTube that Christine pointed to last week showing a baby touching magazine pages as though the magazine was interactive, he writes:

The real question is not about whether magazines will mean anything to children, but what role touch technology will play in developing or impacting on the development of those skills, how it will shape fine motor expectations and change strengths and abilities and just what it means for the future. There will be both positives and negatives, benefits and implications, but what is important is that we watch and learn from it and respond in ways that support children’s development.

In a subsequent post, Donahoo interviews researcher Meryl Alper about her work studying young children’s relationships with technologies. Alper is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California. She says when examining kids media use in early childhood from a developmental perspective, it’s important to keep in mind the population and cultural context and to define what we mean by technology:

I love the example about the age at which young children progress from using “thick” crayons to being able to manipulate the “thin” crayons. It may not be digital, but as a writing implement, a crayon is a communication device, and moving from “thick” to “thin” is a technological advancement – maybe not to you or I, but “mastery” and “proficiency” is age-specific.

The full Q&A is really worth a read, and Alper’s work is a welcome addition to a pretty small field of research. Alper, who studies under Henry Jenkins, calls for more ethnographic research to study how technology is being used in the context of kids’ lives (as opposed to in a lab) and says that adults have a crucial role to play.

“The myth of the ‘digital native’,” Alper says, “masks the need for serious pedagogical and policy-level interventions in adults’ role in scaffolding and supporting children’s early experiences with technology.“

Read more at Wired.

Active vs. Passive: This is the same point Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, made to the Boston Globe last week in a story about young children’s technology use.

“I don’t think we should see these technologies is toxic,’’ he said. “It is what we do with them, and how that fits [into] the larger experience of our lives, that makes a difference.’’

Michael Robb, director of education and research at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, tells the Globe that new media offers chances to let kids go beyond simply staring at a passive screen.

“There are a lot of opportunities to explore and do more open-ended activities,’’ he said. “You could use photography and create a slideshow with sound. It really makes sense about thinking about how to introduce kids to smart uses of technology so they can be digital-media literate.’’

Finally there’s lots more coverage of digital media use in early childhood at Spotlight. And I’ll have more next week with an update on efforts by the The National Association for the Education of Young Children, The Fred Roger’s Center and others to provide guidance to educators, parents, and media creators in determining media quality for this age group.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated to ensure topic relevance and generally will be posted quickly.

Commenting is not available in this section entry.