Mom-fail: My baby gets too much screen time

Faith Merino · November 16, 2012 · Short URL:

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Everyone has heard of the studies linking increased screen time among children to everything from obesity and depression to ADHD, obnoxious personalities, and mass murders (#NotReally).  Some child development specialists recommend limiting screen time (TV, computers, etc.) to no more than 30 minutes a day.  Others recommend keeping kids away from screens altogether until age two (some say age three).  Why?  Because the infant’s developing brain grows so rapidly during the first three years of life that the stimuli they receive during that time period can have lifelong implications.

My son is now 11 months old, and some of you may remember an article I wrote about a year ago on the rising number of Gen Y parents who let their infants and toddlers play with their mobile devices.  In this article, I discussed the fact that 30% of Gen Y parents say their two-year-old has used a smartphone, and then I boasted of my grand plans to limit TV time to 30 minutes a day.  I also said that I don’t get why someone would hand their smartphone to a toddler.

And now, here’s me eating my words: I get it.  Eleven months in, I get it.  Every living creature needs food, water, and shelter to survive.  As a work-at-home mom, I need food, water, shelter, a TV, my phone, a computer, and the Sleep Sheep to survive.  (I love me some Sleep Sheeps.)

I still feel hugely conflicted though.  Studies have found evidence linking TV watching before the age of two to language and attention delays, namely because having a TV on means infants and toddlers aren’t interacting with the people around them.  When a toddler is around, parents typically speak an average of 940 words an hour.  But in one study, researchers attached wires to children aged 2-24 months (because you're allowed to do that if you're a scientist, for science and stuff) and found that for each hour that the TV was on, the kids heard 770 fewer words.

Currently, 40% of infants are watching some sort of video by five months.  By 24 months, that figure rises to 90%.  In the study of 2- to 24-month-olds, 30% of the households had one or more TVs on at all times.  One third of all children have a TV in their room by the age of three.

And then there’s the obesity link.  In one study, researchers attached a device called the TV Allowance to TV sets in the homes of 70 volunteer families.  The device controlled the amount of time users could watch TV and cut the allotment by 10% each month for children between the ages of four and seven.  Children whose TV time was cut in half showed improved body mass index, less calories consumed, and less time spent in sedentary activity.  Interestingly, researchers saw no increase in physical activity among those children whose viewing time was halved, which leads them to conclude that fewer TV hours means less snacking.

So, knowing all this, here’s a picture of my clearly obese son, Jack, zoning out to some morning cartoons:


Here’s another one of him kneeling before Sesame Street:


And here’s one of him watching Twilight with me (we're both Team Jacob):

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy statement in which they advised against any and all electronic media for kids under the age of two.  In the statement, the AAP pointed out that before the age of two, babies don’t have the ability to make sense of two-dimensional images on a screen—they don’t process a person talking on a screen the same way they process a person talking in real life—so there is no such thing as educational digital content for infants. 

This obviously dealt a heavy blow to all the companies pedaling “educational” DVDs and TV shows for infants.  Instead of parking your baby genius in front of the TV, give her some nesting cups to play with, the AAP advised.

“In today’s ‘achievement culture,’ the best thing you can do for your young child is to give her a chance to have unstructured play—both with you and independently. Children need this in order to figure out how the world works,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Ari Brown.

But Generation Y parents rely less on TV to keep their kids quiet than previous generations.  Today’s parents are on the go and handing over their smartphones and tablets in an effort to keep their kids busy for a few minutes.  

At this point, we don’t have any information on the impact of mobile devices on the developing brains of infants and toddlers.

“Technology is generally beneficial, but like anything else, should be monitored in its use.  Moderation has always been a good rule.  That means playing on a smartphone all day is a bad idea for toddlers,” said Scott Jensen, professor of psychology at University of the Pacific, who specializes in parenting.

In the first 12 months, an infant’s brain triples in mass.  During that time, the infant is developing spatial relationships with his surroundings, as well as an understanding of cause and effect.  How do touchscreens figure into that development? 

Even though these are things that I worry about, here’s a picture of Jack playing with my iPhone:

But, Faith, you say.  You’re being an alarmist!

Am I?

A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics found that children between the ages of three and five had trouble sleeping if they had any screen time after seven pm.  Children with a TV in their bedroom had even more trouble sleeping.  And in a regression model, each additional hour of evening media use was associated with a significantly higher likelihood of sleeping trouble. 

Why is this such a big deal?  Because kids who have difficulty sleeping are more likely to develop anxiety disorders, depression, and drug and alcohol habits later in life.  One study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that children who had trouble sleeping at ages 12-14 were more than twice as likely as other kids to have suicidal thoughts at age 15-17.

TVs and computers act as stimulants to children.  One theory is that the light emitted from screens may be interrupting natural melatonin production (your body naturally produces melatonin—the sleepy-time hormone—when it’s dark), which is consequently preventing lots of kids from falling and staying asleep.

And now my big-time mom-fail—here’s a picture of Jack playing on (read: mauling) my computer half an hour before bedtime:

So basically, I failed my son before he even made it to his first birthday.  He will be sleep-deprived, obese, and depressed by the time he's a teenager, and it's all my fault.  It's a good thing we have a Therapy Jar...

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