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.

Can’t Turn Off Bluetooth

the control bar of an Android phone with the Bluetooth icon highlighted (in blue).
Can’t turn off Bluetooth?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I consider myself fairly informed with tech so I can’t figure out why my phone is always turning itself ‘on’ to Bluetooth. I turn the Bluetooth ‘off’. Next time I pick up the phone it is back ‘on’. It feels like the phone overrides what I want. BTW, I have an Apple phone, but my son says has the same issue with his Android. He can’t turn off Bluetooth either. Terry, Rohnert Park

Dear Terry: This Bluetooth problem makes you wonder if these next-generation phones have sentience! Bluetooth, for the record, is a low-powered two way radio signal emitted by smartphones. It works over short distances, about 30 feet or less. More exotically the logo, comes from a bind rune honoring an Old Norse ruler, Harald I of Denmark (source: Wikipedia).

Bluetooth enables your phone to connect to headphones, to speakers in your car, nearby computers, and significantly ‘More’! It is in ‘More’ that you will find the answer to your question. Data exchanges and handshakes take place all day between our phones and data centers. They are not transparent but Bluetooth enables the process. Bluetooth is sending essential updates for advertisers, business people, and information brokers. Perhaps that is why our phones make it so hard to override the defaults?

Pinging Away

For example, one of the most useful transmissions of Bluetooth data occurs in the transportation arena. Phones with Bluetooth are constantly pinged for their travel time and location. Hundreds and thousands of these pings help create the travel maps we use in real time. Perhaps you are grateful for knowing if there is traffic on the Bay bridge, or how long it’s going you to get to the airport.

Or, say you are in a retail store or coffee shop, and they have Bluetooth sensors hidden in the ceiling or displays. They collect travel data from your phone– when you entered the establishment, your indoor walking path, and how long you stayed. Should you log onto the free WiFi, the data miners might also capture your phone’s MAC address and remember it when you return.

Keep in mind all phones are “leaky” when it comes to privacy so it’s good digital hygiene to take precautions. Your phone is going to turn Bluetooth on by itself whenever you use an app that requests location data, so you should take steps to check these defaults. If you close these apps and deny them location data Bluetooth should stay off. But know that true privacy is hard to come by. A phone with cellular service still stays connected unless in airplane mode.

Off is it?

Even when you deliberately turn off both Bluetooth and GPS, your phone may be sending some data. This article in Quartz describes how tricky it can be to turn off all these settings on an Android phone. You have to go deep into the menus to find this feature, and even then, the description will obfuscate. Both the Android and the Iphone, let you turn Bluetooth ‘off’ in the control bars, but it seems to stay turned ‘off’ longer if you do this through the settings page.

One final note on Bluetooth- treat it like a third party to your phone and take precautions. About five years ago there was a virus called Blueborne (son of Harald) and it exploited vulnerabilities in the two-way settings. For Apple, an operating system newer than iOS 10.3.3 is safe. But, that’s until the next hacker finds an opening. On a more personal note, be conscientious when your speakers are enabled by Bluetooth- is anyone else in the room listening in? Remove the Bluetooth trace from the dashboard when you return a rental car, and over Airplay, revoke the right to send and receive from “everybody,” particularly over a WiFi setting.