Screens, Screens, Screens: The Worrying Childhood Impact of the Digital Revolution

New reports show the growing trend of mobile media as pediatricians warn families to get grip on their kids' digital diets

That children in the U.S., from newborns to 8-year-olds, are spending less time in front of traditional television and computer screens than they were two years ago is the good news found in a new report released Monday.

The bad news? Most of those children are now spending increasingly more time in front of newer--and more mobile--digital screens that a growing number of people carry with them nearly everywhere they go. And worse still, according to new guidelines from the pediatric medical community, also released Monday, both the short-term and long-term impact on these children could be devastating.

According to the first new report, Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America 2013 (pdf), presented by Common Sense Media, one of the most striking developments is the rapidly increased access to and use of portable devices by kids.

From the report:

"Among families with children age 8 and under, there has been a five-fold increase in ownership of tablet devices such as iPads, from 8% of all families in 2011 to 40% in 2013. The percent of children with access to some type of 'smart' mobile device at home (e.g., smartphone, tablet) has jumped from half (52%) to three-quarters (75%) of all children in just two years."

"This is quite an extraordinary shift for our young children," said James Steyer, CEO and founder, Common Sense Media. "In the past we could measure and control exactly where, when, and how they were engaging with screens. Now, mobile devices follow our kids from room to room."

"The media children consume can have a profound impact on their learning, social development, and behavior," Steyer continued, "and the only way to maximize the positive impact--and minimize the negative--is to have an accurate understanding of the role it plays in their lives. These kids are true digital natives."

According to development experts, the real and deep concerns about learning and health impacts this trend is having on children in the U.S., especially as the duration and kind of use varied along socioeconomic lines, should trigger a deep warning to parents, educators, and the society at large.

Digital Lives of the Haves and Have-Nots

Dr. Susan Linn, director of the advocacy coalition group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, was troubled by a finding in the report showing that though 54% of high-income families surveyed claimed that overall "screen time" was for educational purposes, only 28% of low-income families did.

"Given the negative association between excessive screen time and school achievement," said Linn in a statement, "it is worrisome that children from lower-income families continue to spend more time watching television than their wealthier peers."

"For these reasons, it is important that reducing screen time for young children and promoting healthy alternatives continue to be priorities for anyone who cares about children's health and wellbeing," she said.

What the doctors are saying: 'Families Need a Media Plan'

Also on Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an updated version of their media usage guidelines for young children and adolescents.

Though the APP guidelines indicate that media use is not by itself a leading cause of any health problems among U.S. children, it warns that unhealthy digital habits can contribute to numerous health risks, including obesity, lack of sleep, school problems, aggression and other behavior issues.

"A healthy approach to children's media use should both minimize potential health risks and foster appropriate and positive media use--in other words, it should promote a healthy 'media diet'," said Marjorie Hogan, MD, FAAP, co-author of the AAP policy. "Parents, educators and pediatricians should participate in media education, which means teaching children and adolescents how to make good choices in their media consumption ."

And as NPR reports, citing Dr. Ari Brown--the doctor behind some of the APP's previous research on childhood development and media--too much of the wrong kind of screen use, especially before the age of two, can be enormously detrimental.

"The concern for risk is that some kids who watch a lot of media actually have poor language skills, so there's a deficit in their language development. We also have concerns about other developmental issues because they're basically missing out on other developmentally appropriate activities," Dr. Brown told NPR.

Additionally, researchers say that too little is known about the accuracy of claims made by many digital media companies and mobile app producers about the "educational" benefits of tablet or smart phone use.

According to Vanderbilt University developmental psychologist Georgene Troseth, also interviewed by NPR, parents should be "wary" of such claims.

"There's nothing wrong with a toy being fun, engaging a child for an amount of time," said Troseth. "But to promote it as being educational we really need to do research to find out. Is having it be interactive, doing anything to make it easier to learn from?"

The APP's recommendations to parents include:

  • Parents can model effective "media diets" to help their children learn to be selective and healthy in what they consume. Take an active role in children's media education by co-viewing programs with them and discussing values.
  • Make a media use plan, including mealtime and bedtime curfews for media devices. Screens should be kept out of kids' bedrooms.
  • Limit entertainment screen time to less than one or two hours per day; in children under 2, discourage screen media exposure.

The group also released this video, featuring Dr. Victor Strasburger, summarizing the AAP's position:

AAP: Children, Adolescents and the MediaVictor Strasburger, MD, FAAP, discusses the effects of media on children, media education, and the 2013 AAP statement, ...

On 'Being Alone Together'

In a recent interview with veteran journalist Bill Moyers, MIT developmental psychologist Dr. Sherry Turkle described the growing crisis of social disconnectedness that has emerged--both for children and adults--since the new arrival of vastly expanded digital and social media technologies.

Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other," our devices are not only changing the way we communicate and interact with each other, but also who we are, fundementally, as human beings. "What concerns me as a developmental psychologist is watching children grow in this new world where being bored is something that never has to be tolerated for a moment," Turkle told Moyers.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.