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Kids Increasingly Staring at Glowing Screens, Study Finds

October 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
How much time are our youngest children spending in front of screens? Jeffrey Brown discusses new studies that chronicle the increasing use of digital devices by young children -- and the resulting health effects -- with James Steyer of Common Sense Media and Dr. Ari Brown of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, in a media-saturated society, how much time are our youngest children spending in front of their screens?

Pediatricians have long warned of the risks of exposing young children to too much television and other electronic devices. A new study suggests such warnings are having little effect. The study, released today by Common Sense Media, surveyed nearly 1,400 parents.

Among it findings, nearly half of all kids under age 2 watch televisions or DVDs for up to two hours daily. And one in three children under age 2 has a TV in his or her bedroom.

The study also chronicles the increasing rise in the use of computers and interactive phones, tablets and other digital devices by children. For example, 12 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds use a computer every day. And half of all children under age 8 have access to a mobile device.

At the same time, the study posits a growing new kind of digital divide, a so-called app gap of parents who download new media apps for their children to use. Only 14 percent of lower-income families have done so, compared to 47 percent of upper-income parents.

The study comes just one week after the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report saying television watching has no educational value for very young children.

And we’re joined now by representatives of the two groups putting out the new studies. James Steyer is founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonpartisan organization focused on media use by children and families. And Dr. Ari Brown is a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics study on the effects of television on children.

Jim Steyer, I will start with you.

This is touted as the first big look at things since the rise of smartphones and tablets and other such devices. What do you see? Fill in the picture.

JAMES STEYER, Common Sense Media: Well, I think what we saw in the opening segment is exactly right.

First of all, kids are moving to mobile devices. More than half of the kids zero to 8 now have access to their parents’ smartphone or their iPad or something like that. I think we’re also seeing the app gap, that it’s clear that wealthier kids have access to some of the new educational games that you can get on a smartphone or an iPad, and disadvantaged kids simply don’t.

And then, third, TV is still the elephant in the room. So that’s what most kids are still doing. And what the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with last week is completely on point with what we’re saying, which is TV, particular for kids under the age of 2, is not necessarily helpful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, why is that? What are you seeing with the use of television, including televisions in the room, right?

JAMES STEYER: Well, one thing that is really interesting is, right, 30 percent of children under the age of 2 have a TV set in their own bedroom. That’s nuts, right? That’s just crazy.

And if you go to the 5-8 category, almost half of them have a TV of their own in their own bedroom. That’s just the old real estate maxim: location, location, location. I really would recommend that kids don’t have that in their bedroom.

I think the other thing that you’re really seeing, too, is that in some homes, 40 percent of home, the TV is on virtually all the time. That’s not very good for attention. It’s not good in a lot of ways. And I know that Dr. Brown understands that as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you, Dr. Brown. Your study of — your research suggests there is really no educational value at all for children under 2. What exactly are the risks or problems that you see?

DR. ARI BROWN, American Academy of Pediatrics: Well, there are three concerns that have come up in the literature, the first one being language skills.

And so children who are watching televised programs under the age of 2 have fewer vocabulary words than their peers who aren’t watching these programs. We don’t know why, though. One question we raise, though, is that because parents are actually talking less to their children, is there less talk time because the program is on?

And we know that kids need that talking time for their language skills to develop. So that’s the first issue. The second issue is its impact on sleep. And so, with a third kids under age 3 with a TV in their bedroom and a third of parents admitting they use TV as a sleep aid, there’s some real concern here, because we know that TV is not calming.

In fact, it increases bedtime resistance and it reduces the quality of sleep. So kids are getting less quality and quantity of sleep, which is really important for their growing bodies and their growing brains.

And the third issue is that is this time placed in front of a TV or a television program on any screen displacing more valuable time spent in unstructured, unplugged play? Because we know that…


JEFFREY BROWN: I’m sorry. Go ahead.


We know that that unstructured play helps a child with problem-solving skills and using their imagination and creativity. And that just can’t be approximated with watching a passive form of programming on a screen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Staying with you, Dr. Brown, I saw that you said in an interview that the last time these recommendations were made, the academy got a lot of flak, and you said that people asked you, what planet do you live on?

It’s a media-saturated society. It’s two couples working all the time. Screens are all around us. So what do you say this time? What exactly are you telling parents — recommending to parents?


Well, if you actually look at the policy statement from 1999, we are actually reaffirming the comment that we made. We discourage media use in this age group. We didn’t say no TV, although that’s what the headlines read. And we know that you can’t keep your child away from a screen 100 percent of the time.

But what we’re trying to inform parents about is that in this age group, televised programs are not educational, because the program gets lost in translation. They simply can’t understand the content and context. So if you’re trying to feel good about putting your child in front of a program, so that they’re learning something, so you can cook dinner or take a shower, you’re really not doing that for your child.

It’s entertaining, but it’s not educational. And so we really want parents to hear it and make a thoughtful decision on media use for their entire family.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Jim Steyer, what about this issue of the newer forms of interactive devices? Because I can imagine many parents would say, now, these are useful, right? Kids are learning from a lot of these things.

JAMES STEYER: Well, I think they can be. And I think it depends on the device and the age of child and the choice of content.

But I agree with Dr. Brown basically about under the age of 2. There’s just no proof that anyone’s going to learn anything, and it will be a passive babysitter. That’s basically it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so take us up…

JAMES STEYER: As you get older, like 5-8, there’s no question. The number-one category of iPhone apps now is for preschoolers. So clearly the market is responding to the idea that you can create educational interactive content.

The issue, though, is, is making good choices there, if you’re a parent or you’re an educator who wants to use it. And so as kids get older, they can be exposed to screen time. They can use these devices in moderation. I think that’s what the pediatricians are telling us, is you just can’t do it five or six hours a day.

I think you’re going to still have the options — issues of brain development and you are still going to have the saturation effect, where kids are just plunked down in front of device. But the new interactive media has great potential. The issue now as a society is for us to make sure that all kids have access to that, not just wealthier kids.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of that, Dr. Brown, what do you make of the digital divide or an app gap? Do you see it growing as well?

DR. ARI BROWN: Well, I certainly know that in some public school systems, there is a real emphasis on technology.

My son when he was in kindergarten knew how to do a PowerPoint presentation. And now in high school, all of the kids have gotten iPads to use during the year. So my school emphasizes that. And I hope that all schools will, because, you’re right, the technology is important and an educational tool, and we want to make it available to every child.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where do you see it, Jim Steyer?

JAMES STEYER: I think that’s right.

Look, this is a huge issue, Jeff. This is where the world is going. You could talk to Arne Duncan, who you have on this show frequently. This is where education is going.

The key, though, is smart choices by parents and smart choices by schools. Dr. Brown said that her kid got an iPad. My two children who are in high school also got given iPads this year. The iPad is going to replace the backpack. You think of your own children. They walk with all the books in the backpack. No more.

So it’s being loaded on to a device. The key though is that we make this available to all children and also that we really look for educational content. We are going to actually at Common Sense next year launch an educational rating system which is going to rate apps to see if they’re actually educational, because everybody and their mom is developing software now, claiming that they can teach you math or science or geography.

So part of the next generation of what we’re seeing in this study is going to be, what is educational content? In the old days, “Sesame Street” was the gold standard, here on PBS, obviously.


JAMES STEYER: And what we’re seeing now is, it’s going to be on your iPad or your cell phone. And the issue is, will quality software be made that truly educates kids? But you are still going to have the limits issue. You can’t just plunk the kid in front of a device or a screen for five hours, and think that’s going to be healthy for them. It won’t be.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a brief last word from you, Dr. Brown, on advice to parents? You’re not suggesting turning away from this world, because it’s very much with us.

DR. ARI BROWN: No, it’s a reality. Thoughtfully consider media use, but for your entire family, because when you’re watching your own screens, it’s distracting for you. And if you want to connect with your child, you need to turn off your own screens, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dr. Ari Brown and James Steyer, thanks very much.

DR. ARI BROWN: Thank you.

JAMES STEYER: Good to be here.