On October 30, JCCF and ZERO TO THREE cohosted a virtual news briefing about the impact of screen use – smart phones, tablets and television – on toddlers. What follows is the transcript of this event, a link to the recorded webinar, and questions and answers on this topic.
TRANSCRIPT: Welcome everyone. I’m Julie Drizin. I direct the Journalism Center on Children & Families at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. I’m coming to you from the Herblock Room in Knight Hall and the students in my Reporting on Children, Youth and Families class are here for today’s Virtual News Briefing to release a new report "Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight: Research-Based Guidelines for Screen Use for Children Under 3 years old."
We’ve all seen these scenarios:
- Parents at the playground, checking their email and Facebook accounts on their smartphones while their little ones say “look at me!”
- OR Fussy kids in the doctor’s office waiting room being handed an iPad to keep them busy and quiet.
- OR Children in the backseat of a minivan, strapped into carseats, eyes fixated on a screen providing entertainment.
Is there anything wrong with these scenarios?
Babies today are born into a world of digital devices. Parents are hearing a cacophony of conflicting voices trying to influence their decisions about gadgets and media usage for their children. But, what does science have to say on the matter?
Here to tell us what is known about the impact of screentime on the development of small children are two nationally recognized experts:
Claire Lerner is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in early childhood development and parenting at ZERO TO THREE. She has written two parenting books, Learning and Growing Together and Bringing Up Baby.
Rachel Barr is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University, where she directs the Georgetown Early Learning Project and does research on child development.
Claire and Rachel will share their research findings. You can go ahead and put questions for them in the chat box at the bottom of the screen and when they are done, we will open up the discussion.
CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE ENTIRE RECORDED ONLINE
Questions from Participants.
Sam Stern: What is the difference between keeping you infant busy with a toy and keeping them busy with a game on a smartphone or iPad?
Rachel: Good question. There is more exploration that a child can do with a toy because s/he can use all the senses.
Claire: The “rule” is that the more the tool the child is using—toy/device—requires use of the child’s mind and body, the more learning that takes place. Since children use much less of the body to explore and use screens, the less powerful a tool for learning they are, unless the parent make it a more full-body experience experience.
Erin Thacker: Is there a good age to start allowing your children to use mobile devices?
Rachel: It depends on what the purpose is. So if there is an e-book that can downloaded on a mobile device and this is a good way to get access to picture books via a digital library then this could be used early in childhood. If a child is using an app to learn about colors and numbers then this content would be much more appropriate for a 2 to 2.5 year old child who is able to learn the concept and operate the device.
Interesting, I happened to moderate a panel last night at a local preschool on Kindergarten readiness. The Kindergarten teachers who spoke all shared that even in Kindergarten, a lot of the assessments they are doing are using computers, so the children who have more experience with them are less anxious and more prepared. Also notable is that they are finding that Kindergartners coming into their classes in the last year or two have no clue how to use a mouse. All they want to do is swipe! So teachers are having to instruct the children on how to use a computer and mouse, because not all schools use ipads—most public schools still rely heavily on computers.
Jessica Eggert: I babysit children and I can't take out my device around then because they will cry if I don’t let them use it rather than their own toys. What do you think draws young children to iphones and tablets rather than traditional toys?
Rachel: There are lots of attractive effects embedded into apps that are designed to attract attention. Also adults are interested in mobile devices which makes them attractive to young children as well who like to copy people around them.
Marissa Laliberte: Beyond the studies mentioned in the report, have there been any differences shown in grades, test scores, IQ, etc. real life since technology became more ubiquitous in recent years?
Rachel: Indirectly there is a phenomenon called the “Flynn Effect” where IQ rates have consistently increased from 1950 to the present day due to increase in nutrition, education and technology.
Michelle Leibowitz: What advice would you give to babysitters (like me) who babysits children whose parents allow a lot of screen time? What can caretakers do who aren't parents to counteract the excessive use of screen time?
Claire: When you are with the children, limit the time they are on screens. You can also share with parents in a collaborative way, so they don’t feel you are instructing or judging/criticizing them, that you attended a REALLY INTERESTING webinar on the impact of media on young children and share some of what you learned.
Leo Traub: Is occupying your child with interactive digital media (like an iPad app) any less disruptive than occupying them with static screen time (like television)?
Rachel: Under 3 years children will need some sort of adult support for engaging with television or tablets and the content will need to be relevant to the child’s everyday experience. That is screens whether tablets or television are difficult for children to learn from.
Katie Wilhelm: In what ways can you encourage young children to discuss what they're learning from these various forms of media?
Rachel: In very similar ways to how parents engage children around picture books. Parents can describe and label the content, to help the child better understand the story. They can also ask children questions. They can relate personal experience from the child’s life to help them build the bridge between the media content and the child’s everyday life.
Erin Serpico: Regarding coping mechanisms, I think a lot of parents already hand over a smartphone or device to stop the crying or discomfort in a child. What are ways to get around that already existent dependence children have on smartphones to make them feel better?
Claire: The issue here is really about the difficulty parents have setting and enforcing limits—and allowing their child to work through their disappointment/frustration/anger without the need to be soothed by a device. Parents hate seeing their kids unhappy, and tantrums are really unpleasant, so the knee-jerk reaction is to soothe them in any way you can, which today means handing over phones and ipads. When parents allow the child to just go through their upset, they adapt and move on, without the need to be soothed by a device. And this is a gift to young children—teaching them that they have within them the ability to manage these difficult feelings on their own.
Briah Stokes: Do you think that digital media has now taken the place of the more traditional and soothing pacifier?
Claire: Yes—see response above.
Bailey Hayek: Since children today do grow up in a world of technology, wouldn't limiting if not eliminating their screen time inhibit them in the future when they need to know how to use these devices? How do you advise parents to find the balance between making sure their children are well adapted to technology without negatively affecting their cognitive development?
Rachel: Since it can take longer to learn from media than from face-to-face interactions, it is important that they have plenty of time to explore the world and to learn from others. The learn information from many different sources, including from media if it is used in their homes. But as you point out balance is the key.
Ann Dornfeld: Do you think parents are becoming unrealistic about appropriate activities, bedtimes, etc. for young children - i.e. taking them to late dinners with friends, keeping them out midday on long errands, etc. and using screens to distract kids who should be at home/in bed?
Rachel: Parents are attempting to balance many demands on their time. There are different cultural expectations around sleep and media use. So in some cultures staying out for family events is very common, in others set bedtime routines are very common. Parents are attempting to sift through information from multiple different sources and to figure out what practices to adopt and how to make them work in their own families to do the best for their children. The research-based information that is provided in the report that was released today are to help parents in their decision making.
Loretta: Does the transfer deficit apply to books, then? They are 2-D.
Rachel: This is an excellent question. The answer is yes it does. The transfer deficit applies to books, television and touchscreens. If you want to read more about this Barr (2013) Child Development Perspectives.
Michelle Leibowitz: What advice would you give to caretakers who have multiple children with large disparities between their ages? If someone were to care for a nine month old and an eight year old at the same time, is it damaging to the baby to watch more mature content?
Rachel: This is a wonderful question. This may be where new technology might help. So the 8 year old might be able to use the tablet and the baby would not need to be exposed to the content, or the older child might have media time when the baby is asleep. This is part of taking a mindful approach to media use across the entire family, so setting time aside for adult media viewing when children are asleep as well.
Marissa Laliberte: How do TV interruptions compare to everyday interruptions and background noise, such as conversations and traffic?
Rachel: This is another good question. Conversations can be beneficial because children are able to learn from overheard language in the home. Music in the background does not have the same negative effect. Noise including traffic, airplane noise does have similar effects to background television and Wachs has written a great deal about this.
Jessica Stein: Isn't it true that any type of learning (on a device or simply on math homework, etc.) goes more smoothly when parents interact with their children?
Rachel: It depends on how much the child understands; in cases when the task has been mastered then the child may not need parental guidance. But when the task is just beyond the child’s understanding, then parental support is very helpful. It also depends on the age of the child, when the child is younger they will need more direct support than when they are older.
Jessica Eggert: If television watching leads to sleeping problems, why do you think some people need to sleep with their tv on?
Rachel: It is associated with sleeping problems not leading to sleeping problems. It is possible although I can’t know for certain that some people need to sleep with TV on because they have learned to fall asleep with the TV on.
Claire: They have become dependent on it as background noise. But some research shows that while people may fall more easily to sleep with the TV on, their sleep is more restless and interrupted.
Michelle Leibowitz: How much screen time should children be allowed on an average day?
Rachel: This should be determined by parents and caregivers and educators who are looking after the individual child. It should be limited to allow for interaction and exploration but an absolute time limit does not help.
Claire: The big factors are the 3 C’s—child, content, context. Every child is different, which is why we don’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach. Some children, for example those who have a harder time with social interaction, are more likely to become dependent on screens because they are “safe” and controllable, unlike people. As for context; for example, it is quite different to be set in from of a screen for 2 hours watching passively, vs having a parent is actively engaging with the child around the screen, making it a language-rich, social back-and-forth experience,
Erin Serpico: What about the parent-child interactions in cars and moving vehicles? Typically, adults can be on the phone, but might be difficult to interact directly with the child in those situations. Should screen use be prohibited in cars?
Rachel: Parents can talk with their children without having to be directly viewing the content. Often the stories and characters are well known to parents who can add in brief descriptions.
Claire: Parents need to be mindful about why they choose to expose their children to screens—be clear about what the purpose is. Parents need some breaks, so if a child has a hard time in the car, then maybe they will decide for that 15 mins to allow it as a distraction. But then limit is elsewhere, or use if more actively—participating in the screen experience in other situations. But parents should also think about other ways to engage while in the car—for example playing an Eye Spy game looking out the window; singing together; listening to music, etc.
Ann Dornfeld: Have you looked at the effects of parents using screens while breast-/bottle-feeding babies?
Rachel: No this has not been directly looked at.
Karen Mawdsley: Is there a difference in children's engagement between standard screen use and touch screen use?
Rachel: It really depends on the content. If the material is the same then screen size doesn’t make a difference in terms of engagement.
Alyssa Morlacci: At what age can a child use a mobile device without parental presence?
Rachel: It depends on the content, so looking at photos might be possible at age 2-3 years but would be a more enriching experience if parents are discussing it with the child. There may be some games that children can learn and master during the second year of life.
David Sparrow: The AAP recomends no screen time till age 2. That seems outdated in our screen-dominated culture. What would your suggested guidelines be?
Rachel: The implications and guidelines at the end of the white paper I think sum up what is currently known about early media exposure.
Julie Drizin: Are children who don’t grow up with tablets or e-Readers really missing anything?
Rachel: They are likely to be attracted to these devices if others around them are using them. Tablets and e-readers may be able to deliver content that children might not otherwise be able to experience. For example they might not be able to go the zoo but could see a giraffe on the screen. The family may not be able to afford books but is able to download free digital ebooks to the phone and to take those books during commutes. So children may not miss anything specifically but in some cases they may experience things that they otherwise would not.
Claire: See response above about the expectations for use of a mouse by Kindergarten. Seems it would be beneficial for children to feel comfortable navigating screens by the time they start school.
Julie Drizin: Studies have reported that children born in poor families start school with a 30 million word gap – that’s a deficit that starts pretty much at birth, because their parents don’t talk to them or read to them as much. But some parents themselves don’t have a rich vocabulary. Couldn’t technology be part of the answer to expose little kids to language?
Rachel: Some studies showed that children did gain vocabulary from well-designed Sesame St. programming. The 30 million word gap accrues over 3 years but it is not to do with poor parental vocabulary; all parents may provide language to their children and now information is clearer for parents about why talking to babies and young children is so important for child language development.
Claire: It is important to clarify that is the QUALITY of the language experience, not just the QUANTITY. It is hearing words in the context of their daily experiences—and having back-and-forth “diaglogues” even before children have words (using their sounds, facial expressions and gestures) that build strong vocabularies and overall communication skills. So in so far as parents engage in these kinds of interactions using screens, they can be a tool for building language.
THANKS TO CLAIRE LERNER AND RACHEL BARR. I ALSO WANT TO THANK MY STUDENTS, ESPECIALLY AYSHA KHAN WHO HELPED PRODUCE THIS EVENT AND CLINT BUCCO, the Director of Computer Services HERE AT THE PHILIP MERRILL COLLEGE OF JOURNALISM. AND, TO THE TEAM FROM ZERO TO THREE: ERIC VAUGHN, DON OWENS AND LYNETTE CIERVO.