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.


One thought on “Infants, toddlers, and screen use: What the research says

  1. Great advice, Dr. Peterson. This common sense approach to media literacy is helpful to parents in this transmedia world. Face to face learning first. Electronic devices are extensions of this learning base, not a substitute.

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