No Screen Time Until Two?

A young baby looking at at Ipad (stock photo)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My oldest sister had a baby boy eight years ago and her baby doctor told her no screen time until two years of age. I had a girl last year, and was surprised when the same doctor (we both go to her) said that the guidelines had changed. Her professional society is saying it is OK now for younger babies to have screen time. My sister and I compared notes and wonder why they changed because babies are babies. Sydney, Weston

Dear Sydney:  You are lucky that your pediatrician took the time to talk about media time with you. I once read that just fifteen percent of parents said that their pediatrician discuss media use yet Pew polling in 2020 finds that 61% of parents say they depend on doctors for screen advice!  The professional society you are referring to is the American Academy of Pediatricians (APA).  They have a long history of trying to explore the role of screen time, publishing research, and  tinkering with the recommendations.

The 2016 guidelines suggested that children under 18 months stay unplugged. Prior to that they recommended no screen time until age 2.

18 and under.

There is a long form that accompanies  the 2016 APA reset- that’s what your pediatrician was referencing. The Academy recommends that parents stay involved with their children’s media use and set boundaries, that they carefully select content, and encourage co-watching. If the APA lowered the age, then they upped the stakes for parental involvement. There was one exception: the 2016 guidelines  said it was OK for kids under 18 months to engage in video chatting. Presumably that was for keeping up with long distance grandparents and family, or, cynically,  did they anticipate the burgeoning growth of pediatric visits  and  telemedicine?

Of course, children have not changed in the past eight years, nor do they grow up faster- so why did the APA  change? I will try to update this when I have more direct knowledge and interviews. The best I can tell is that the Academy needed to keep pace with modern trends.  Parents wanted guidance, and the professionals recognized that they did not have  a robust body of research on the effects of new digital media. Between 2000 and 2016 there was a proliferation of technology.Streaming media opened viewing up 24/7 and released the content from FCC oversight. 

Head Starts:

Not surprisingly, time spent in front of screens exploded for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers over the same time period. Today, ninety percent of young children use a handheld electronic device by the age of one, and in some cases, when they are only a few months old. A British study in 2017 found that 10% of children ages 3-4 had their own tablet and 53% of these were online, for nearly 9 hours a week. During covid these rates skyrocketed as preschools closed and more parents worked from home.

So, to address your question, the APA wanted to keep up with the trends and stay relevant to parents. If you and your sister  want help sorting out the digital guidelines you can go to Commonsense Media. This parent centric site reviews content options, summarize the state-of-the-research., and more.

By the way, the APA guidelines do not say ‘No’ to  media and TV-  they simply discourage its use. Surprisingly, the concerns are less about content and more often about the time that watching TV or screens displaces.  Keep in mind that for every hour of television that a child younger than 2 years watches alone, he or she will spend an additional 60 minutes less time per day interacting with a parent or sibling, and engaging in other types of play. The issue is that television displaces more developmentally valuable activities that stimulate cognitive growth and motor skills. Research continues to find correlation (not causality) between early television viewing and developmental problems. BTW, many families have the TV on at least six hours a day as background noise- that counts too!

Reading Apps for Kids

YouTube Reads Aloud- Reading Apps for Kids?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My granddaughters were staying overnight and I found out that they like an app on their dad’s phone before they go to bed. The app reads stories to them in the evening before they fall asleep. So, I downloaded the app (called Calm) to my own phone and they were happy. But, do you think that children this age (3 and 5) should go to sleep with apps that read to them?   Myra, Berkeley

Dear Myra: It sounds like you are a thoroughly modern grandmother as you downloaded the reading app for kids, but I don’t think you need to be. As you intuit, it’s wholesome to read bedtime stories from books, not phones.  Today’s busy frazzled parents might prefer than an app do that, but IMHO you should question the routine. By the way, the app you downloaded has many features just for adults.

But back to the grandkids. They and their parents are missing out on a wonderful time to come together as a family and share. Reading aloud is a great opportunity for families to wind down the day and indulge together in a flight of fantasy, historical fiction, nature or other literary genres.  Since the girls are close in age, they might like the same material. Young children get to cuddle with Dad or Mom and learn that reading is entertaining.

The Spoken Word:

There’s an academic plus to this: hearing words spoken together will increase the girl’s vocabulary. Since the 1980’s researchers have studied what happens if more of children’s first language learning take place in front of the television, and less from adults that read aloud. The TV  raised kids suffer a large “vocabulary deficit. ” In school, no Head-Start programs can catch them up. Meanwhile, the children who are read to also become better writers. They are more proficient with sentence structure and grammar.

Regarding the Calm story, podcasts and phone apps seem like radio a when it comes to learning new words.  Unlike watching on TV, listeners have to use their imagination to fill in the details. Perhaps they pay more attention. Still, reading from a book is the most expansive. Kids can control the pace of the story- speed up, slow down, or pause. And, adults provide soothing cues to help interpret scary or sad stories. The classic narrative about this is Bambi, the deer who loses his mother. 

Sleep Interference:

There is one further reason why I would encourage your son and daughter-in-law to limit reading apps for kids at bedtime. Research is linking difficulty falling asleep and adverse health outcomes with using smartphones before bed. It’s thought that the bluelight from the phone or other factors (unknown) interfere with melatonin production. Children are thought to be even more susceptible to these sleep disruptions.

Read Forward:

There are plenty of  good children’s books out there, and they are free for you to browse and borrow from your local library. Also, I recommend this classic on children’s reading. Get a copy for your kids and grandkids, so that they can cultivate a read aloud habit. The author wrote the book as he investigated why SAT scores were falling since the 1970’s and why contemporary kids were stressed, sleep-deprived, and anxious. He was critical of the ‘No Child Left Behind Curriculum’.

My take-away is that if do not wish to leave your grandchildren behind, then ‘read forward’ with them. Since your granddaughters are only three and five years old, you have many years to grow that habit together.

Cell Phone in the Car?

Dad and husband are hung up on my car phone. Cannot hang it up!

A cartoon showing rear window of a car with stick figures for mom, dad, kids, and mom's phone.
Cell Phone in Car? image credit:Tom Whyatt

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  We got a new car that has an Android Auto dashboard and it feels much safer than my old car. I can answer a cell phone in the car from a click on the steering wheel. But,  both my husband and Dad are insisting that I not use a cell phone in the car. They do not have my responsibilities! We have two children and a new baby. It seems like I am on the road all day picking up or dropping off. When I use the cell phone in the car the time passes faster and I do not have as much catch up at home. I am a safe driver and of the opinion that they are not experienced with these newer features. Leah, Claremont

Dear Leah: You have probably seen those yellow stickers on the back of car windows that say “Baby on Board” or “Precious Cargo.” No matter what age group we drive it’s vital to keep that in mind. 

On the subject of Android Auto & CarPlay safety, I am not an expert and technology has evolved since I first started this column. Researchers typically evaluate 3 sources of cell phone distraction in the car: visual distraction, manual distraction, and  cognitive distraction. Your hands-free dashboard helps reduce the manual distraction for incoming calls. It’s a little trickier to reduce visual distractions for outgoing calls but voice commands can dial the phone number (or text). Older people, perhaps like your Dad, have been found to be slower to understand and deploy such features. 

That said, there is more to safety than physically using a phone to call or text. Cognitive distraction occurs because  we have limited processing ability. The mental faculties we need to keep that 3,500 lb people-mover positioned between lines and avoid collisions are also used for speech, visualization, and memory- the stuff of two way conversation. For more insight into cognitive distraction, look here. Most of the time we have the cognitive bandwidth to process the road and the talk. Yet it’s those one-off moments when you do not, and there are unanticipated hazards. Drivers cannot organize or anticipate these. 

Reduce Time & Effort:

To reduce the risk, here are two recommendations: first, make these hands-free  phone calls very short. A short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ conversation, or ‘be there in ten minutes’ is going to be less cognitively taxing than an intricate discussion say with your loan agent or insurance company. Second, limit the number of these conversations. The longer you spend driving and chatting, the greater the likelihood that you will encounter some danger. 

That said, you have another option. In the spirit of what your husband and Dad recommend, you can always pull off to the side of the road or find a parking lot. Take your longer calls (or texts) from there. 

Modeling You!

But, I have a deeper concern. You mentioned that you have three children in the car. When  you spend time there on the phone you are implicitly  teaching these youngsters that is an acceptable behavior. So, when they become teens you should not be surprised if they too drive with phones and model you.  Young children constantly observe what their parents do and say. I am guessing that you do not want to teach them that phones come first, family time comes second, and road safety is third. 

So, not to shame you- mothers have too much on their plates- but it is important to engage in  real conversations with your children, even when you are firmly planted in the driver’s seat. Some of our best conversations can be side by side, looking out the window. You will learn a lot about your childrens’ days at school, friendships, and current interests if you ask questions and listen carefully. If it’s hard to get started, engage them with wayfaring  (see DearSmartphone column) and the local geography. If that doesn’t suit you, seek out a local carpool with nearby families. 

It’s hard to imagine travel in cars without phones these days- they help us navigate to places, anticipate the traffic, and update those last minute shopping lists. But phones should never  squeeze out the precious moments we have with our children, and send them a message that cell phones get answered first.