The other night at dinner my first grader, Lulu, announced that she was done with girly-girl princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. “I like the warriors,” she said, “Merida, Mulan.” I asked her where Ariel the mermaid fell in the rankings, and we debated it for a bit. “Well, she is imaginative,” Lulu said. She compared Ariel’s nemesis, Ursula the sea witch, to Panthea, the “evil queen of the dark elves” on her current fave Netflix series Mia and Me. “They’re both tricksters,” she said. “Powerful, but not to be trusted.”
These days I’m feeling pretty good about our family screen time — especially when it leads to delightful conversations like these. We follow our own version of Michael Pollan’s “food rules”: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.”
It wasn’t always this way, of course. I used to be completely in the dark and freaked out about media rules. When Lulu was born, I researched out the wazoo on most parenting topics. I had an informed opinion about slings (yes), sleep training (hell yes), and sugar (none until 1, then in moderation). But when it came to the digital devices that seem to accompany our every waking moment, the only expert recommendation I knew was the American Academy of Pediatrics “no screens before age 2” rule, a rule that 90 percent of families ignore, and one that was significantly modified in the fall of 2016.
Once I started talking to experts, I quickly discovered it’s not just parents who are confused. The world of research on kids and media, especially on increasingly ubiquitous mobile and touchscreens, is relatively young, hotly contested, and full of gaps. Enduring a tantrum-prone toddlerhood, if you will.
The last major piece of federally funded research on children and media, “Television and Behavior,” was published by the National Institutes of Mental Health. In 1982. “There has really been nothing since the 1982 NIMH report,” Dr. Victor Strasburger, an AAP member, told me, when it comes to big-time research. “Which I think is scandalous.”
Since then, researchers have struggled to keep up with the onslaught of new devices and technologies. The 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines cite just a handful of small experiments involving touchscreens and young children, for example; no large-scale studies, meta-analyses, or longitudinal studies either. Nor do researchers have access to inside industry information about how game-makers produce the most effective content.
And the bulk of the existing scientific literature on the effect of media on children reads like a list of the anxieties that keep any parent up at night: from obesity and low-quality sleep to academic delays and behavior difficulties, to addiction, and depression.
In response, the conversation among parents seems to consist of blaming, shaming, and guilt-mongering. Parents try to set limits and monitor content, but we don’t have a whole lot to go on. And even though pretty much everyone, kids and adults, are watching video for two hours or more a day on various devices (some estimates go as high as four and a half hours a day), we don’t hear much at all about how to make that TV time better.
But there are researchers, such as Heather Kirkorian, director of the Cognitive Development and Media Lab at the University of Wisconsin, who cast themselves as more “media positive and parent positive.” These experts focus on the common principles that promote “learning from any form of media,” in the words of Rachel Barr, a developmental psychologist at the Georgetown Early Learning Project.
The most important ingredient here is you.
The most recent media guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics stress “joint engagement” and “avoiding solo use.” Dr. Jenny Radesky, the lead author, told me, “Shared media use was a new emphasis because we know parents are meaning-makers for young children.” She says parents must be “role models” to show children “that media use is not only a solo activity.”
Sorry to say: This means something other than sitting on the couch next to the kid as she zones out on Peppa Pig and you scroll through Instagram. Barr says joint engagement means treating TV or an app like a picture book. “The reason that reading is likely to be such a powerful learning tool for young children is how the parents are engaging around it,” she says. “The same thing is likely to apply to learning from any form of media — any 2-D symbol.”
Let me reemphasize that point. If a form of media — a book, a song, a YouTube video of a great horned owl, a drawing app, an episode of Bob’s Burgers — supports a positive interaction between a caregiver and a child, that’s a net gain for that child.
This is called “parental mediation of media.” And it’s effective throughout childhood. Research by Barr, Kirkorian, and others shows kids as young as 15 months can learn new skills from videos if, and only if, parents are there to reinforce and interpret what they see on screen. Researchers at Texas Tech showed that preschoolers absorbed pro-social messages, such as empathy or washing your hands after you use the potty, from the show Daniel Tiger, if, and only if, their parents were already in the habit of talking about the content of the shows they watched.
This is hard to hear, of course, because usually we’re parking kids in front of the TV to give ourselves a break. I might hand my daughter the iPad when I need to give the baby a bath and my husband’s working late. There are always tradeoffs in real life. “Sometimes you need to do dishes or laundry,” points out Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental expert at Temple University.
But as long as you provide a good example for some of the time, you’re not doomed to video duty forever. With older kids, around the time they start reading on their own, parents can let them watch alone and then talk about what they’ve seen afterwards, as I do with my daughter. Henry Jenkins, a new media scholar at USC, suggests that just as we ask our kids, “what did you do at school today?” we should be asking, “what did you see online today?”
This is actually also a good argument for watching something that you both can enjoy, even if it’s the basketball game, even with a baby — so long as you are taking care to point out the “blue” and “yellow” uniforms.
The converse of what I call the “mostly together” principle is the biggest mistake parents may not realize they’re making. That is, the pernicious effects of background TV. In the most recent national survey from Common Sense Media, 42 percent of parents said they had televisions going “always” or “most of the time,” whether anyone is watching or not.
Studies by Christakis and others have shown that when a TV is on, adults speak to babies and young children up to 90 percent less. Children’s play, meanwhile, is more fragmented and lower-quality. (“Quality” pretend play is extended and includes elements like planning, verbalizing, and the use of props.)
“I think this is one of the things that is really not obvious for parents,” Barr told me of the dangers of background TV. “You feel like the baby is playing happily in the corner, everybody is doing their own thing and it’s all good.” Instead, she says, “It’s harder for the baby to get the parents’ attention. The learning that is going on is impacted by less interaction from the parent.” Some researchers have suggested that “background TV” should instead be called “secondhand TV” because of this toxic effect.
But maintaining that TV can have cognitive and social benefits when it’s a shared activity isn’t a green light for guilt-free family binge-watching. Researchers are in agreement that there’s such a thing as too much. Content matters too: Media that’s too violent, or even too fast-paced, is correlated with a rise in anxiety, fear, and aggression.
Balancing media use takes a holistic approach. It isn’t necessarily about counting screen-time minutes, Dr. Radesky told me. Instead, it includes establishing screen-free places and times, and making sure kids get the other stuff they need for healthy development: unmediated time with family and friends, outside play, and books to read. But you probably already knew that.
After rolling up all this expert advice, we’ve arrived at a plan that works pretty well for our family. We are millennial cord-cutters, and hence no background TV. Using the laptop or iPad, Lulu gets to watch basically whatever she wants, for as long as she wants, on Saturdays, plus vacations, sick days, and travel. We rarely step in on content, and we don’t limit her time on those days, though we do make sure she gets breakfast before she turns on the TV, that she plays outside at some point during the day, spends time with us, doesn’t eat while watching, and doesn’t watch too close to bedtime. For the rest of the week, she gets three iPad passes to play with apps for 20 minutes at a time. These have been the rules since she was 2, so we don’t have many power struggles about them.
It’s become a cliché that we’re living in a golden age of television. To me, this includes my kids’ favorite shows, like Mia and Me and My Little Pony. I want my daughter to enjoy her screen time just like I do — in moderation, with friends and family, as a basis for dinnertime debates.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent for NPR. This is an adapted excerpt from The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life by Anya Kamenetz. Copyright © 2018. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.