They crawl, cruise, toddle, walk and run. Best of all, they explore their ever expanding world with their eyes, ears, hands, and their whole bodies. They are why parents baby-proof their homes.
Toddlers under two are a daring and energetic bunch whose lives focus on becoming increasingly comfortable with their social and physical worlds. In order to do so, they must experience their world, first hand, in all its dimensions, and with all their senses. As the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends in their recent policy statement, this is best done in person and not through screens and media.
It is important for parents to realize that in order to benefit from watching media, a young child must be able to both pay attention to and understand the content of the programming being offered.
In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics discouraged the use of media in the under two year old age group because they felt that there was concern that it did more harm than good in the development of young children. Now, 12 years later, the Academy has strengthened its position on this issue, citing the lack of evidence showing any educational or developmental benefits for media use; the potential negative health and developmental effects of media use; and the negative effects of parents' use of media when toddlers are around.
It is important for parents to realize that in order to benefit from watching media, a young child must be able to both pay attention to and understand the content of the programming being offered. This cognitive ability doesn’t typically develop until 18-30 months. Studies have shown that children who are 12-18 months are more likely to learn from a live presentation. Thus, under two-year-old children do not generally have the thinking and the attention skills to benefit from screen-based education. Advertising claims are not supported by scientific evidence.
The AAP report notes that not all of the damage done by exposure to media is direct. There is collateral damage as well. When children watch television, they spend less time in creative and imaginative play and less time interacting with their family members. Unstructured playtime is critical to learning problem-solving skills and fostering creativity. Children who live in households with heavy media use also spend less time being read to or reading themselves. Media use robs them of these opportunities and takes away enjoyable and important family time.
Television viewing has negative consequences for language development in the short term. Children younger than two years who watched more television or videos have expressive language delays, and children younger than one year with heavy television viewing who are watching alone have a significantly higher chance of having a language delay. Despite claims to the contrary, media watching does not appear to accelerate or enhance thinking and language skills, and, at least in the short term, leads to delayed development of these important skills.
Finally, the AAP statement points out that there are known health consequences of excessive media use on children older than two years which include obesity, sleep issues, aggressive behaviors and attention issues in preschool and school aged children. These raise concerns and areas for study in the youngest media viewing age group.
The report makes a number of recommendations:
- Media use by children younger than two years should be discouraged.
- If media use is inevitable, it should be managed, monitored, and reviewed for content by a parent, and, ideally, viewed with the child to enhance their understanding and promote parent child interaction.
- Do not put a TV in the child’s room. This leads to unsupervised use and often makes TV viewing a prominent part of the bedtime ritual
- Parents need to be aware that when there is a TV on in the room, with adult programming, it decreases parent -child interaction, play, and conversation, and it distracts the children from their own play.
- Parents are urged to recognize the importance of unstructured playtime in the development of a child’s thinking, reasoning, social, emotional, and physical skills.
The hope is that as parents become sensitized to the problems associated with media use and toddlers, they will reduce their children's exposure and come up with other ways – such as going out for a walk, or playing – to pass the time. The AAP urges families to turn to their child’s health care provider for help in managing the challenges of media and our children. This might include seeking advice on developmentally appropriate free play and discussing strategies for setting and maintaining limits on media use in the home.