Toddlers and Tech: From Alarm to AcceptanceAnything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything that’s invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

—Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

For more than fifteen years the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated that children under the age of two should have no screen time whatsoever – no TV, no iPads, no movies, no anything. They’ve also recommended that with older children screen time should be limited to no more than one to two hours per day. Meanwhile, research tells us that most babies and toddlers have all sorts of screen time, and that older kids (aged eight to eighteen) typically spend 11.5 hours per day engaged with one or another digital device. Needless to say, this is quite a significant discrepancy.

A few years ago, after looking at the AAP’s recommendations and comparing them to what the research said about kids and their almost incessant use of digital devices (plus personal observations of what was happening in the world), my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Schneider, and I decided to investigate more closely the effects of digital technology on children, families, and society in general. Eventually we published a book on the topic, Closer Together, Further Apart, meant to help therapists and parents healthfully navigate their way through a world filled with tech-savvy kids.

Interestingly, when Dr. Schneider and I started working on that book we both were leaning toward the AAP school of thought regarding kids and technology. However, when we dug a little bit deeper – pushing aside our analog, middle-age mindsets – we found ourselves viewing human relationships with digital devices with less fear and more excitement, especially in regard to children. In fact, by the time we’d finished researching and started writing, we’d concluded that the AAP’s guidelines were decidedly out of touch with reality.

For starters, we found that despite the AAP’s “no screen time before age two” recommendation the majority of newborns were being weaned on digital devices, adapting to their use as easily and intuitively as they reach up to be held when afraid, and this did not seem to be a problem. We also noted the almost total lack of research on the impact of interactive screen time for babies and toddlers (and older kids as well). Our conclusion was that the AAP’s guidelines were based more on generational fears and conjecture than provable facts. In Closer Together, Further Apart we wrote:

Unfortunately, these empathic, caring, well-educated individuals seem only able to view (and give opinions) … through a lens distorted by … their own time, place, generation, relationship experiences, and culture. This type of retrospective analysis, even when well intentioned, can produce concerns based primarily on fear of the unknown, fear of change, and the very human belief that ‘the way we did it (whatever it may be) is the best way to do it.’

In short, we came to see the AAP guidelines as fear-based, over-the-top, and untenable in most modern-day American households. And guess what? We got it right.

In a recently published AAP News article the organization announced that it has begun the process of revising its outdated recommendations, openly admitting that its “policy statements lag behind the pace of digital innovation.” As an example, the organization notes that its 2011 policy statement on media use for babies and toddlers was written prior to the first generation iPad and the explosion of apps aimed at young children. The organization now states, “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete.”

So far it appears the AAP’s organizational mea culpa is being well received. In a Wall Street Journal article James Steyer, Chief Executive of Common Sense Media (an organization that rates media content for parents), says, “Some of the traditional recommendations, like discouraging all screen time before age two, just don’t fit with reality circa 2015-2016.” In the same article Dr. Dimitri Christakis, Director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, says that reading a book with a child via Kindle or iPad is no different than reading an actual printed book. “The real value of reading to a child isn’t anything magical about the book,” he says. “The book is providing a platform for the parent and child to interact.” In other words, it is the parent-child interaction, not the book (or its format) that is so important to the child’s healthy development.

In an effort to develop amended digitech guidelines based on scientific evidence rather than precautionary principle, the AAP convened an invitation-only symposium earlier this year, seeking to identify research, evaluate data, and begin the process of providing updated and more practical advice to digital-age parents. Although the AAP is yet to formulate and release an official position paper, they state in the AAP News article that several “key messages for parents” emerged from the symposium. These are:

  • Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually. Like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects.
  • Parenting has not changed. The same parenting rules apply to your children’s real and virtual environments. Play with them. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Teach kindness. Be involved. Know their friends and where they are going with them.
  • Role modeling is critical. Limit your own media use, and model online etiquette. Attentive parenting requires face time away from screens.
  • We learn from each other. Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best via two-way communication. “Talk time” between caregiver and child remains critical for language development. Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers. The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold (e.g., a toddler chatting by video with a parent who is traveling). Optimal educational media opportunities begin after age two, when media may play a role in bridging the learning achievement gap.
  • Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer.
  • Curation helps. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research validates their quality. An interactive product requires more than “pushing and swiping” to teach. Look to organizations like Common Sense Media that review age-appropriate apps, games, and programs.
  • Co-engagement counts. Family participation with media facilitates social interactions and learning. Play a video game with your kids. Your perspective influences how your children understand their media experience. For infants and toddlers, co-viewing is essential.
  • Playtime is important. Unstructured playtime stimulates creativity. Prioritize daily unplugged playtime, especially for the very young.
  • Set limits. Tech use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Does your child’s technology use help or hinder participation in other activities?
  • It’s OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are integral to adolescent development. Social media can support identity formation. Teach your teen appropriate behaviors that apply in both the real and online worlds. Ask teens to demonstrate what they are doing online to help you understand both content and context.
  • Create tech-free zones. Preserve family mealtime. Recharge devices overnight outside your child’s bedroom. These actions encourage family time, healthier eating habits, and healthier sleep.
  • Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. These can be teachable moments if handled with empathy. Certain aberrations, however, such as sexting or posting self-harm images, signal a need to assess youths for other risk-taking behaviors.

As of now, we still don’t really know how screen time is affecting our babies, toddlers, and kids in the long-term. Perhaps we are helping them learn to interact and survive in an increasingly digital world. Or perhaps we are raising a generation of sad, pale, antisocial kids who’d rather date an avatar than a real person. Probably we’re going to see something in the middle, especially if parents can healthfully incorporate the AAP’s new “key messages” regarding technology. Only time will tell. To be honest, as Dr. Schneider and I wrote in Closer Together, Further Apart, “To watch a [digital-age child] actively engage with technology is to view human evolution in real time.” That, of course, is a pretty cool thing – even if we don’t know exactly where this evolution might take us.

He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships (co-written with Dr. Jennifer Schneider). For more information please visit website at robertweissmsw.com.