Infants, toddlers, and screen use: What the research says

Infant onesie reading "Do not touch my iPad"

Should this be on a onesie? (credit)

Children’s media use is making headlines this week. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued recommendations for physicians to routinely ask about their young patients’ digital media use, and Common Sense Media released a study that shows 38% of children under age 2 have used a mobile device.

Many parents are aware of the AAP’s advice to keep children screen-free until age two. This statistic gets tossed about frequently, but the research behind it often gets lost in the shuffle. What do we know about media use by young children, and why are pediatricians concerned? Here are some highlights of the research:

Heavy TV viewing in early childhood is associated with attentional problems at age 7. In this study, children viewed an average of 2.2 hours of television per day at age 1 and 3.6 hours per day at age 3. The association between heavy television viewing and later attentional problems remained even when other factors were accounted for, such as prenatal substance use and gestational age, measures of maternal psychopathology, and socioeconomic status.

Heavy TV viewing in early childhood is associated with decreased cognitive development. In this study, ‘each hour of average daily television viewing before age 3 years was associated with’ slightly lower scores on tests given at age 6 or 7 of reading recognition, reading comprehension, and short-term memory.

Heavy viewing of baby-oriented DVDs is associated with decreased language development. The ‘baby-oriented’ media in this study included DVDs such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, and the children studied were 8 to 16 months old.

Like all scientific studies, these are not perfect – they do not necessarily account for all the other factors that may influence children’s learning and behavior. In addition, these studies do not address interactive screens that young children are increasingly using, such as tablets and smartphones. The technology is so new, we won’t likely see solid research on it for another year or so.

But few pediatricians disagree with the essential message of the AAP: very young children learn more from interactions with people than they do from watching or interacting with screens.


How to read a fashion magazine with your daughter

Cover of an issue of Seventeen magazineTeens are surrounded by images of perfected faces and bodies. Not perfect, but perfected – by stylists, lighting, camera angles, and of course Photoshop. Many teens now have access to this type of technology, and some have even altered photographs of themselves. But they’re not professional touch-up artists, and they may not be aware of the extent to which photos of models and celebrities – and the people themselves – have been edited before appearing in the pages of their favorite magazines.

Teen girls and boys are both exposed to these types of images, and numerous studies (here’s one) have shown that reading fashion and fitness magazines can make young people of both genders more concerned with physical appearance and eating behaviors. In this post, I’ll focus on girls and fashion magazines. How can you help a young woman ‘read’ such images critically? Here are some conversation starters.

“How many people do you think helped her get ready?” Encourage your daughter to think about all the professionals on a photo shoot and their jobs: hair, makeup, lighting, photography, fans (if the model’s hair is blowing), and styling of clothing (assuming the outfit has no wrinkles). Then ask her how many hours she thinks it might have taken all these people to get the one shot they used. A great visual to use is Jamie Lee Curtis’ “True Thighs” photo shoot.

“What do you think she looked like in the shots that were thrown out?” When a photographer is ‘shooting’ a celebrity, the camera clicks constantly as the subject poses and smiles over and over. The model is surely blinking and making less-than-beautiful faces in many of them. Encourage your daughter to take a bunch of photos in quick succession of someone smiling and then not smiling, and see how many it takes to get one ideal image in which every element looks its best.

“What parts of the photo were probably edited in Photoshop?” In fashion magazines, nearly every photo is retouched, and dozens of websites feature unedited photos side-by-side with the final product: celebrity close-ups and full-body shots. Another useful site is this one by a professional retoucher, which lets you mouse over an image to see the original photo.

Encourage your daughter to find more information online about what size a typical model wears, compared to an average, healthy girl of her age. Point out media images of strong women such as athletes, and talk about what they likely eat to fuel their bodies. By helping your daughter to develop critical awareness of images in the media, you can bolster her own self-image and encourage her to feel strong and beautiful in the face of media messages that suggest otherwise.



You’re at the library/bookstore, now what?

It can be overwhelming to walk into the children’s room at your local library, the kids’ section at the bookstore, or even a school book fair. How do you navigate the sea of available books and find something that will interest your child? Get some help with old technology from new(ish) technology. There are apps for that!

Logos of Kids Book Finder, Scholastic Book Fairs, MeeGenius, and Common Sense Media Kids Media appsThe Kids’ Book Finder ($1.99, for iPhone and iPad) accesses 26,000 titles with full annotations. You can search by grade level, topic, genre, and even see which books won awards.

The Scholastic Book Fairs app (free, for iPhone and Android) lets you scan a book cover or bar code at a book fair to learn more about the title. It also gives you recommendations for similar titles.

PBS Parents’ Bookfinder (not an app, but easy to use on a tablet) is oriented toward younger children’s titles. Search by ‘read aloud’ and ‘read to self’ and by levels from babies to third graders. Organized by three dozen themes including multicultural and special needs.

Can’t get out of the house? MeeGenius (free, multiple devices) is like a bookstore in your tablet. But be careful – in-app purchases are inevitable and easy for kids to navigate.

Time for multimedia? Common Sense Media’s Kids Media App (free, multiple devices) is a guide to more than 19,000 books, video games, movies, music, TV shows, and even apps themselves.

A father balances cultural literacy with TV-free kids

Matt grew up watching a fair amount of television: about an hour on an average day. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing, in his opinion.

He, his wife Natalya, and their three children watch so little TV that, during a recent vacation, the children assumed the set in the house they rented didn’t work because they never saw it turned on.

A bookshelf with children's books in English and Russian

The media of choice for Matt and Natalya’s three children

Matt and Natalya were not big TV watchers even before they became parents.

“We never had a TV,” he said. “But we did consciously decide not to go and buy one when our kids got old enough to watch TV. We were a bit afraid of using it as a hypnosis device/babysitter.”

Their home living room has no television set, but shelves and shelves of books in English and Russian, which is Natalya’s native tongue. Matt and his wife surround their children, ages 8, 4, and 2, with reading material in both languages.

“The kids read tons of books, we’ve always had a lot of books around the house,” Matt said.  “We encourage the kids to use books as distractions on car rides and stuff. We encourage them to read as much as they can.”

They also listen to the radio quite a bit at home, and they let the children watch videos online from time to time.

“It’s sort of a special thing,” Matt said. “Like right before bed or a reward for something.”

He added that the children don’t really browse the Internet at all, they only watch the videos their parents select for them.

Matt wants Anya, age 8, to develop reading literacy first, so she can “extract useful information from text before we let her loose on the Internet.”

Anya is beginning to choose non-fiction books at the library, but her father realizes that there are many things one doesn’t learn about as easily from books.

“I learned a lot about the outside world by watching TV,” Matt said. “Reading books doesn’t show you how people dress, or what other cities look like.”

He worries that, some day, the children may not understand jokes made by their peers, or references to pop culture.

“If you don’t get the jokes and humor,” he said, “it can be a barrier to making friends.”

Another issue Matt foresees in his children’s limited exposure to screens is their capacity for media literacy. He hopes that he and his wife will be able to help the children develop a skeptical response to messages in media, but he realizes that some television viewing may be necessary to accomplish that.

“We’ll gradually expose them to these things,” he said. “Probably when they’re a little older and we feel they have a better sense of judgment, and are more questioning in general of things that people tell them.”


Athletes hawk junk food, and teens are listening

Do your kids like Peyton Manning and LeBron James? If they’re fans, chances are they pay close attention to the commercials the stars appear in. And the foods they advertise? They’re not ideal fuel for aspiring athletes.

Still from McDonalds ad featuring NBA star LeBron JamesAccording to a study just published in the journal Pediatrics, Manning and James are just the tip of the iceberg of endorsements by pro athletes of nutrient-poor, calorie-dense food. Manning has contracts with Papa John’s and Gatorade. James (right) and fellow NBA star Kobe Bryant endorse McDonalds. Shaquille O’Neal and Serena and Venus Williams were involved in a Double Stuf Oreo “lick-off” competition sponsored by Kraft in 2009. Food endorsements are second only to sporting goods in these athletes’ contracts.

It’s no secret professional athletes are role models to many adolescents and, according to the study, kids age 12 – 17 are the ones who see their food commercials most often. If your kids seem influenced by these marketing messages, encourage them to think critically about why these celebrities are endorsing such products. A few conversation starters:

“Why do you think he/she agreed to advertise that?” Not all kids realize that celebrities get paid a ton of money to endorse products. Generally they have to at least like the product itself, but most celebrities won’t put their stamp of approval on anything without a sizable paycheck.

“If I give you five bucks, will you say this is your favorite food?” A hypothetical situation can help younger kids understand how endorsements work. It’s especially effective if it’s a food they sort of like but do not love.

“Is it a good idea for an athlete to eat/drink that all the time?” This can be a tough point to make with sports drinks like Gatorade, which are marketed so effectively but aren’t much better than water for youth athletic activities. But kids can probably guess that Peyton Manning doesn’t eat pizza every day, and that a pile of Oreos would slow down the Venus sisters on the tennis court.

The key is to encourage kids to think critically about the purpose of such advertising, and to wonder what the athletes actually eat every day to fuel their extraordinary bodies.