As I have written previously on this blog, a study conducted by researchers from the National Institutes of Health and Yale University has analysed the more general effects of new media across 173 research studies. It considered studies across a period of 30 years that addressed the impact of television, music, movies and other media on the lives of children and adolescents. Many studies showed that there is a significant relationship between time devoted (i.e. excessive time) to new media and a variety of health or behavioural problems, for example:
- 83% of studies found a relationship with obesity
- 88% found a relationship to sexual behaviour
- 75% found a relationship to drug use
- 80% found a relationship to alcohol use
- 88% found a relationship to tobacco use
- 69% found a relationship to ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
In releasing the report one of the researchers, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, of the NIH, commented that:
"The results clearly show that there is a strong correlation between media exposure and long-term negative health effects to children. This study provides an important jumping-off point for future research that should explore both the effects of traditional media content and that of digital media -- such as video games, the Internet, and cell phones -- which kids are using today with more frequency."
The impact of media and technology on very young children
While there are many wonderful benefits of new media, the upshot of the above studies is that too much exposure to 'new' media appears to be harmful. There has also been more recent research into the impact of media on very young children, particularly the impact of television in the preschool years. This research has raised very serious questions about the potential impact that video games, television and related technology mediated images may have on children's learning. In fact, some researchers have suggested that too much exposure to television may have an impact on the developing brain (see my introductory post on early brain development here). We know from the research of neuroscientists that environmental experiences can shape brain development due to the plasticity of neuronal connectivity in the young brain. They suggest that significant and repeated exposure to specific stimuli may have an impact on the child's intellectual and emotional development. This they believe can occur by setting up specific "habits of mind" or by depriving the child's brain of other significant experiences.
The same experts suggest that language rich environments with lots of interaction with adult caregivers, stimulating opportunities for play and other forms of stimulation to learn, enhance brain development. However, they conclude that in contrast, those that encourage passivity and limit social interaction, creative play and problem solving "...may have deleterious and irrevocable consequences". As a result of such findings the American Academy of Paediatrics has recommended that children under 2 years of age do not watch television and that children over two should have no more than two hours of media (e.g. TV, computers, gaming) use per day. This recommendation reflects the repeated identification of varied effects from too much television viewing, including those listed at the beginning of this post.
What does this mean for parents of toddlers?
The first thing to note is that the potential damage caused to the young child's intellectual development is caused as much by what the child isn't doing as the screen-based stimulation itself. If, for example, lots of television viewing replaces, play, story reading, interaction with adults etc, then this is problematic and could have a negative effect on your child's health, development and learning.
The second thing to note is that in a multi-child family where there is a television that it's hard to stop toddlers from watching. As well, children do learn many things from television and this can stimulate other worthwhile activities like storytelling, creative activity, literacy learning etc. TV isn't all bad! It's simply a problem if uncontrolled and over-used.
The third thing to note is that small amounts of televisions seen around the edges of family life should not be a major concern. This type of inadvertent viewing is not likely to cause significant harm if in limited amounts. There may be issues with children seeing adult content, but this is another topic and once again, it requires parent care and control.
Finally, I'd stress that the first 12 months of life is the most critical period. I can't see any good reason for television viewing as a planned activity at this age. If you do allow your toddler under 2 to watch television I'd argue for it to be strictly limited. Short sessions of 5-10 minutes with your active participation are a very low risk. Choosing the right programs is important. I see value in programs that invite the active participation of the child (e.g. actions, dance, singing, clapping etc). If television can be avoided for the first two years it may well be wise, but in many families this won't be practical. For me the key is to emphasise play, language stimulation, story telling and reading, physical activity, problem solving, manipulation of objects, real life experiences etc. Don't allow television to become a baby sitter for children under two years where they sit transfixed for long periods. This is what research is showing to be problematic and potentially harmful. I've listed some of my previous posts that relate to this type of stimulation below.
My previous posts on play (here)
My previous posts on learning (here)
My posts previous posts that address the impact of TV (here)
My previous posts on language experience (here)
American Academy of Paediatrics policy on 'Children, adolescents and television' (here)
'Understanding TV's effects on the developing brain' (here).
Media Awareness Network article, “Television’s Impact on Kids” here
Brain wave: How technology changes our thinking, by Gerard Wright