Mobility

Ubiquitous screens pose new parenting challenges in the 21st century

Parents are wondering how, when, and where to incorporate screens and media into their little ones' lives. See what the evidence shows, and learn tips and guidelines about screen time for children.

YouTube Kids on an iPad.
Image: Jason Cipriani/CNET

My gut tells me that toilets and touchscreens should probably be associated with different things, even after children become toilet trained. I know adults carry their phones and tablets into the bathrooms already, but the iPotty looks like an idea better consigned to the porcelain god of history. That doesn't mean that there isn't going to be a role for screens and computing devices in the lives of children around the world.

If you consult the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines for suggested screen time for children, you'll see that they discourage "TV & other media" use by children under 2 entirely, and suggest that older children should be limited to 1-2 hours of "entertainment screen time" featuring "educational, nonviolent programs," supervised by "parents or other responsible adults." So, that's 0-2 hours per day of screen time, total, across television, smartphones, games, tablets, and whatever newfangled wearable devices our kids are putting on these days, all supervised. Does anyone else suspect that many parents around the world aren't following these guidelines? Are you?

Frankly, asking about the "right way" to balance technology in the lives of children is probably one of the most ill-advised things you can do online. When it comes to parenting, people have strong opinions that stem from culture, religion, personal experience, and whatever resources they can find, online and off.

Author Amy Webb wrote about her approach to data-driven parenting at Slate, and her column on quantifying everything about her baby received over 1,000+ comments, many quite negative. When she suggested that parents shouldn't share pictures of their children online, riled up readers went out and found public pictures of her daughter online, even though she didn't intend for them to be there.

How should we integrate technology into parenting?

Fortunately, when I asked experts and my network of sources and contacts about how they're approaching screen time, I received a tremendous amount of useful experiences, feedback, and advice.

"I do wonder how much those 'screen guidelines' have adapted to the new reality of Netflix queues, YouTube playlists and Sago Sago apps," commented Andrew Lih, author and associate professor of journalism at American University, via email. "When my twins were 3 years old, they didn't learn words like 'gargantuan' and 'destination' from me — it was Endless Alphabet on iPad. They watch Thomas the Tank Engine MP4 videos in Chinese language because it's far better than listening to dad's crappy pronunciation."

The open question for parents, including me, is how, when, and where do we incorporate screens and media into our children's lives. The new addition of YouTube Kids to the mix, offering a more child-friendly version of the world's biggest video sharing platform with parental controls, gives parents another option on whatever size screen is handy. This specialized app from YouTube is only the most recent entry in an expanding universe of digital options for children, at least a few of which are downright educational.

"During last week's snow days, the boys binge-watched Octonauts and fell in love with it," said Lih. "One of the boys came up to me and said, 'Symbiosis - that's when two animals stick together. Like crab and urchin.' This is not mindless zombie-fication. They're definitely learning. That said, normally Monday-Friday, they rarely get more than 15 minutes of screens, but when they do get the weekend or snow day TV binge session, I make sure to quiz them on it to make sure they're critically absorbing something of value."

I know our little family isn't sticking to the AAP's guidelines: over the past year, my daughter and I have watched Sesame Street video and old Muppet musical numbers on an iPad and iPhone. We used those same devices to FaceTime with grandparents in far-away cities and countries. In that time, we've also read hundreds of books, played with blocks, puzzles, and toys, drawn and painted, cooked, gone to music classes and sang along to CDs, gone for walks, and enjoyed many experiences that aren't digitally mediated at all. Our daughter is developing well, which makes me feel like we're not totally mucking this up.

"The AAP's recommendation makes sense if you understand the context in which the recommendation is made," said danah boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft and the founder of Data & Society Research Institute, in an email.

When TV was first introduced into most households, it was seen as a social object where the family gathered to watch and engage. This shifted as TVs proliferated and many exhausted parents used the "boob tube" as a glorified babysitter. For a while, there was all sorts of marketing out there telling parents that TVs could be educational. Mostly this involved selling products (like Baby Einstein) that had no proven educational value. As more research came out, we learned crazy things like when people are watching TV, they process food at a rate slower than sleep (hence, connection to obesity). As a result, the AAP started pushing parents to see TV (and, hence, the "screen") as a problematic part of the household, something to be critiqued and considered. And the push was all for supervision, mostly to make this kind of activity social as opposed to a passive mechanism.

Since TV, things have gotten more complicated. We read books on screens now. We talk to grandma through Skype. We look up recipes for dinner. We play games. And yet most parents are not in a position to assess whether or not something is a healthy kind of engagement or a destructive kind of engagement. Things are particularly tricky with the younger cohort who often obsess over whatever they engage with. (How many times have you read any given Sandra Boynton book? Again? Again? Again?) And all of a sudden, everything gets fraught.

What we have now is common knowledge that the AAP recommends against screens and so we have a massive number of parents out there feeling guilty (or resentful). This is one of many ways in which parenting is regulated and people feel guilty. And the reality is that the issue is not inherently the screen, but the dynamics around the screen that the AAP is trying to guard against. This only gets messier because kids see parents engaging with devices and that creates a mega unhealthy dynamic.

Clay Johnson, the chairman of "The Department of Better Technology" and author of "The Information Diet," suggested in an email that parents look first at how their own behavior is modeling technology use for their children.

"Like everything else in parenting, I don't think there are any hard and fast rules," he said. "The 0-2 hour rule, and all the studies that go along with it show significant correlations, but what they don't do is take into account other factors."

What does the evidence say?

When I looked for advice from researchers who study development and screen time, I heard back about three key elements to consider.

First, screens are ubiquitous in modern life — how we integrate them into our own lives has a tremendous influence upon our children, just as with anything else we do.

"We focus too much on the device itself," said Rachel Barr, an associate professor of developmental psychology at Georgetown University, in an interview. "We say 'TV is bad' or 'touchscreens will make sure kids learn' or 'paper books are better than ebooks,' but it depends upon what kinds of content is being delivered, and how it's being delivered. This is difficult for parents. Sometimes, reading an ebook on the subway or waiting at the bus stop could be a great thing. A paper book might be more convenient if you're going to sleep at night. A touchscreen app might be great for conveying a concept, or contain too much irrelevant info depending on the child."

Second, our involvement and engagement with our children as we interact with media, whether it's delivered on classic TV, tablets, or print books, is critical.

"Parents can't go wrong if they engage in dialogic learning," said Dr. Kimberly Noble, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University, in interview. "That means reading a book and talking about the story at the same time, explaining the story and then asking about what's going to happen next. It's not just reading, but talking about everything else in it. That kind of interaction we know promotes children's language development. You can talk about anything in your world, through conversational terms, as opposed to labeling things or directing kids to do something."

Finally, there's an important difference between children passively consuming media on a screen of any size and using it as a communication device to talk, chat, or make a video call with a relative or friend. When we use our mobile devices with our children to FaceTime, Skype, or Hangout with friends, in other words, it's different than watching an inane cartoon for the nth time.

"The AAP guidelines are in need of revision," said Barr. "A lot of people are trying to think of different ways around this: how do we live in the 21st century? Parents are very soon all going to be digital natives. All of the students I'm teaching now are. There's not going to be this divide any more soon. When we mention these guidelines, they're very confused."

On a larger scale, it's critical to consider what screen time consuming media could be replacing: human-to-human interaction.

"We know that language development really explodes in the first two years, and the way it grows is through exposure to other speaking individuals, most commonly adults," said Dr. Noble. "Children that age need to be exposed to speech, and not just speech, but human-directed speech."

This last point is probably the one that should resonate the most with my fellow parents. Dr. Noble pointed me to a series of experiments conducted by Patricia Kuhl, a professor at the University of Washington, that examined how useful television was versus human instruction in conveying concepts. The researchers brought 1 year old native English-speaking infants into a lab and exposed them to a Mandarin speaker five times a week over a period of two months. Half of the children heard the person speak to them in person. The other half were exposed to the exact same words uttered by the individual on closed circuit TV. At the end of that time, when the researchers tested the ability of the English-speaking babies to discriminate sounds that were specific to Mandarin, the children who'd heard it in person did well. Those who had been exposed to Mandarin on TV didn't improve at all, acting instead like kids who had not been exposed at all."

"What we've learned is that we don't learn as well in 2D as we do in 3D," said Noble. "Even if you are interacting with someone about this content on a screen, you're still not going to learn as well interacting with similar materials in the real world. Kids generally learn better with material they can touch, vs those on a screen. The AAP recommendations come from the question of whether we should be putting kids in front of TV because it's an educational program. The research suggests not to fool yourself: if you're doing it for 10 minutes because you need to get something done, ok, but if you're saying that 'this is something I'm using for educational time,' be careful."

Where games fit in

Both Dr. Noble and Barr acknowledge that interactive games and software applications should be considered separately from video, but with similar caveats: parents should engage in dialogic learning.

"There are almost 100,000 apps called 'educational' on iTunes," said Barr, "and there's no regulation. It is very hard for parents to figure out what is good content."

Parents of children that have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum also have to be aware of the preference for screen-based media that those children may have, including potentially negative outcomes from overuse. While some games and software show promise for helping adolescents with autism improve their social skills, the use of 3D learning over 2D representations on screens for younger children everywhere on the spectrum seems to be critical.

"The brains of young children respond to stimuli more slowly," said Barr. "They can quite often process information but not use it in other situations. Books are not easy, TVs are not easy, and touchscreens are not easy. I think it's all about the transfer, going from 2D to 3D. How do you take information in the real world and apply to books, TVs and touch screens and use it, or vice versa?

For any type of software, however, Barr said that research suggests that great gains in child performance are possible when the parent is involved.

"We often hear parents that the child is so excited they don't want to interrupt," said Barr. "Just pause the stream or app and, ask them something, then they do a lot better.

If you read a book, ask them a question. Nothing is static anymore. While TV didn't allow it, on an iPhone, just pressing pause is easy."

Tips and guidelines

What to do? Barr shared a project called Screen Sense, which offers resources and evidence-based guidelines for screen time for children 0-3 years of age. The five key findings are as follows:

  1. Not all screen time is detrimental, but it should be age appropriate, time-limited, and involve parents.
  2. Children are negatively impacted by television playing in the background.
  3. TV or videos two hours before bedtime can have negative impacts on sleep.
  4. Use of mobile devices by parents can lead to children acting out.
  5. More interactivity can distract from a storyline or conveying concepts.

Johnson came up with five simple ways to assess how his son was balancing screen time with other activities or experiences.

"It's better, I think, to take a look at my kid's life cohesively and work backwards from there," he said. "I start on the other side of the coin:

  1. Is my kid well?
  2. Did/will my kid get enough outside time today?
  3. Did/will my kid make or produce anything today?
  4. Did/will my kid get enough social time today?
  5. Did/will my kid get enough physical activity today?

"If the answer to these questions is 'yes' then I go for screen time. If the answer is 'no' to any one of these (except for 1 — in which case, if he's sick and needs to sit in front of the TV to not be so miserable, then let it go) then my answer is 'I, as a parent, need to think of something more compelling.'"

boyd offered practical advice based upon her fieldwork that may be useful to the parents of children older than 3.

1) Parents: check your own screen engagement when you're with your kid. You're setting the norms in your household so if you don't want your kid to be checking her phone at dinner, you need to make sure you don't.

2) When you've got younger kids, talk through every interaction you have with a device/screen. This way, kids see the difference between device as game versus communication versus information. "Mama's going to text your father right now to bring home milk. Do you want me to say anything from you?" "Daddy's going to look up directions to the playground. Do you want to see the map?"

3) When your kids are older, talk them through how they want to allocate their time in general. How much of the day should be spent communicating with others? How much should be spent on entertainment? How much should be spent doing homework? Talk through those allocations and then talk about how technology fits into it. Make it explicit that it's not about screen vs. non-screen because homework is now screen. It's about thinking about what time should look like.

4) What makes screen time "educational" is not simply the branding of a particular marketing campaign, but how the technology or media is integrated into life more generally. Think that through and integrate the tech into the whole picture of their lives. (Small kids can indeed learn a lot through music and video and games.)

5) Forgive yourself for using tech as a babysitter sometimes. The reality is that parenting is hard and there are always times when you just need a break and where our ridiculously judgmental society is unhealthy. Giving an iPad to a screaming toddler on a plane makes everyone happier, and the happiness of parents seems to matter a lot more on outcomes than a few hours of screen time.

That's all a lot to process, but that's what many parents are confronted by today, including me. I hope that other parents making their way through the 21st century find some of this useful. As ever, we are all learning as we go.

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About Alex Howard

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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