When my son was just a baby, multiple moms instructed me to keep my child away from the television, tablet, and iPhone until he was 2, listing multiple reasons ranging from the classic “television rots their brain” and possibly overstimulation to the assumption that many children form media addictions because they are exposed too soon.
The American Academy of Pediatrics was behind this general way of thinking, issuing a recommendation in 1999 that children under 2 should be discouraged from any screen time at all. The reasoning behind this “screen ban” was that they found “more potential negative than positive effects” of media exposure.
As a stay-at-home mom in the Midwest who also works, I found that it was almost impossible to keep my toddler away from the television. In fact, I would often joke that people who didn’t let their children watch television must have full-time nannies and grandparents helping them the majority of the day or have their kids in daycare. When my son was a little over a year old, to his delight I started introducing shows like Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood into his day, just so I could get a little work done and also maintain some sanity, especially during those winter months when we were stuck inside the house for days at a time.
Of course I felt guilty for my actions, mom-shaming myself for putting my child’s well-being on the back burner and defying the recommendations of the group that is basically the pope of parenting.
But instead of becoming a potato head, something crazy happened after my son was introduced to television: he started learning from the shows he was watching. While I was working away, he was diligently listening to every word that dripped off Big Bird’s tongue, often repeating what he said. I started watching with him and encouraging him to embrace new words, letters, and numbers. Sometimes I didn’t pay attention to what he was watching because I was busy working, and he would surprise me by dropping words, letters, and numbers on me that I hadn’t taught him.
It became clear he was actually learning from the television.
It was then that I started questioning the AAP’s screen ban. Sure, too much of anything could be detrimental to a child’s health and there was definitely reason to limit my son’s television watching, but was letting him watch a few shows per day really going to hurt him? I still felt a little guilty, because I was doing something I wasn’t “supposed” to do and I’m sure people judged me for it, but I’m an imperfect parent, so whatever.
Well, I finally got to breathe a sigh of relief last week, as the AAP finally removed the ban, extensively updating its guidelines.
Now they are saying that it is okay for very young children to engage in screen time, as long as there is someone else in the room helping them understand what they are watching.
While they still recommend that kids under 18 months refrain from screen time altogether (other than live video chat, which can actually be beneficial for them), when it comes to infants and toddlers between the age of 15 months and 2 years, there are some studies that maintain they can actually learn from educational media, if and only if parents or other adults are watching with them and helping guide them along. However, the same studies also have correlated poorer language skills and language delays with earlier solo viewing of the same videos, so it’s all still a little vague, but basically, ”no screen time under 2” is now “no unsupervised screen time under 2.”
When it comes to children between the ages of 2 and 5, they suggest there is more evidence that they can translate knowledge from the screen to the real world. This includes early literacy and math, as well as positive social and emotional skills and behaviors.
But don’t get all remote happy and hand your child the iPhone just yet, because not just any “educational” shows on YouTube or the television will satisfy the AAP’s guidelines — they note that they are partial to Sesame Workshop and other PBS shows. They also don’t recommend more than one hour of screen time per day and co-viewing with them to “help children understand what they are seeing, and help them apply what they learn to the world around them.”
While I’m sure there are millions of other parents out there who are breathing a sigh of relief (I’m not the only one I know who handed over the iPhone in a restaurant before their kid was 2!), it is important to remember that nothing replaces good old-fashioned learning and that ultimately, it is our job as parents to teach them how to apply this sort of knowledge to real-world situations.
“Families should proactively think about their children’s media use and talk with children about it, because too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep,” said Jenny Radesky, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement.
“What’s most important is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect, and learn.”