Like 90 percent of American parents, Matthew Sullivan allows his infant daughter and five-year-old son to watch television, videos and sometimes web-streamed content on his smartphone.
He usually limits their screen viewing to just over an hour a day, and admits that handing his phone to his 16-month-old daughter so she can watch a YouTube video can keep her busy and quiet while they run errands together.
“We know it’s not great for them, but it’s not bad either,” Sullivan, a 36-year-old editor in Wilmington, Delaware, told AFP.
Over the past decade, media has pervaded the developed world to such an extent that the American Academy of Pediatrics on Tuesday issued its first guidelines since 1999 to discourage any screen time for kids under two.
The largest US pediatricians’ group says some of the 50 or so studies on the topic have shown that screen viewing can be linked to slower language development.
In a new twist, it also warned parents to be aware of the negative effects their own screen-watching can have on their children.
“I like to call it secondhand TV,” said pediatrician Ari Brown, who is the lead author of the AAP guidelines, in an interview with AFP.
“When the TV is on, the parent is talking less. There is some scientific evidence that shows that the less talk-time a child has, the poorer their language development is,” she said.
“Clearly, no one is listening to this message. In this ubiquitous screen world, I think we need to find a way to manage it, and make it a healthy media diet.”
The latest guidelines do not refer to interactive play such as video games on smartphones or other devices, but to media watched passively on any kind of screen, be it phone, computer, television or other.
“This updated policy statement provides further evidence that media — both foreground and background — have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than two years,” it said.
“Thus the AAP reaffirms its recommendation to discourage media use in this age group.”
Brown also said the update to the guidelines was needed because of the explosion of baby DVDs targeting the 0-2 age group.
“Some of these programs have good content, but even ‘Sesame Street’ for a kid under two is not promoting learning because they don’t understand it,” she said.
The AAP did not name specific products, but a host of DVDs aimed at babies and preschoolers make up a $200 million annual market in the United States, where one third of children have a TV in their bedrooms by age three.
Efforts by federal authorities to stop marketers from making educational claims on their products have fallen short, the AAP said.
“The educational merit of media for children younger than two years remains unproven despite the fact that three quarters of the top-selling infant videos make explicit or implicit educational claims,” the AAP said.
One popular brand, Baby Einstein, was sold by its founders in 2001 to Disney. After studies debunked claims of intellectual benefits, Disney removed the word “educational” from marketing materials and in 2009 offered refunds.
Disney did not respond to a request for comment, but Baby Einstein founder William Clark said he was aware of “the ongoing effort to demonize the brand.”
Clark told AFP that the initial mission was “to expose babies to classical music, poetry, colors in art and nature, and common animals,” and “offered parents a number of ways to interact with their babies.”
The product’s website now carries the disclaimer: “Baby Einstein products are not designed to make babies smarter.”
No studies have followed heavy television watchers into later childhood or adulthood, so any long-term effects are not known. Heavy media use is defined as a household in which the television is on all or most of the time.
The AAP guidelines point out that research to date suggests a “correlation between television viewing and developmental problems, but they cannot show causality.”
Nevertheless, pediatricians should talk with parents about avoiding videos for babies and limiting screen time to no more than two hours a day for kids over two, the AAP said.
“Unstructured playtime is more valuable for the developing brain than any electronic media exposure,” it said.
Sullivan said he limits his kids’ viewing, not because a doctor told him to, but out of common sense.
“My son is a zombie when he watches television. If the television is not on when I come home, he runs and hugs me. If the television is on when I come home, he just doesn’t even acknowledge my existence,” he said.
“So obviously we’d rather he not stay in that zone for hours a day.”