The week of November 30, 2014

For kids, screen time is a luxury and a liability

By Leslie Anne Jones

It obviously wouldn’t be ethical to test for the effects of a whole childhood spent in front of screens on children. A few years ago, researchers came up with perhaps the next best thing. Affixing colorful lights and speakers broadcasting Cartoon Network sounds to mouse cages, they subjected young mice to six hours of “television” for 42 days straight.

Seattle Children’s Research Institute director and pediatrician Dimitri Christakis presented the spooky results at a TEDx Talk in Washington: In an observation box, the control mice traveled along the perimeter—your standard, cautious, don’t-get-caught-in-the-open mouse behavior, while the media-binge rodents scurried all around and every which way. They’d turned into hyperactive risk-takers.

The results were published in 2012, and since then screens have only become more prevalent in the lives of infants and young children. CommonSense Media reported in 2011 that 10 percent of children used a touchscreen before age 2, two years later the number spiked to 38 percent.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding screen time for children under age 2. But if you’ve spent any time around toddlers, you’ve probably witnessed the hypnotic pacifying effect a smartphone or tablet can have on a fussy kid. So are we bringing up a generation of attention-less digital drones?

The explosion of mobile technology is so recent, conclusions based on longitudinal data aren’t available yet, but there’s plenty of research underway, and some of it dovetails with the effects of television, which have been studied for decades. However, televisions and touchscreens are not the same thing. And you can’t just study the device: How the child’s attention is directed, how the content is presented, and who is watching with them all factor into whether or not the experience is educational.

The transfer deficit

Georgetown psychologist Rachel Barr has been studying toddlers and infants’ ability to learn from screens for decades. Barr’s research shows that, surprisingly, babies have a relatively easy time learning simple tasks from screens while toddlers find it more difficult.

Barr says this is because toddlers have a “transfer deficit,” meaning they can’t learn as well from screens as face-to-face interaction. In a 2007 study, 6-month-olds learned equally well how to imitate a simple task from a real person as from a person on a screen, whereas 18-month-olds found it much harder to learn from the video.

One reason for this is a 6-month-old may not have yet learned how to distinguish between real life and a symbol, so for them, in certain controlled circumstances, a person on a screen can work as well as a real person.

By 18 months, however, children are starting to understand that what occurs on the screen isn’t occurring in the room, so they have trouble learning from screens.

Are we bringing up a generation of attention-less digital drones?

“Under some conditions the transfer deficit can be overcome,” Barr said, citing her study where 18-month-olds saw a screen presentation over a longer period. If they were given more time with the video, they could learn equally as much as from a live presentation.

“It might be that very young children enjoy watching and reading the same shows and books many times because it takes longer for them to learn,” she added.

By age 3, children get that images on screens are symbolic representations, and they are thus able to process more information from them. At that point, a modest amount of quality programming (Dora the Explorer, Blues Clue’s) can be educational.

Learning from Sesame Street

Psychologists also look at the context of screen time. Plenty of evidence indicates that background television is distracting and potentially harmful to early development. Last year, psychologist Gabrielle Strouse published a study that showed 3-year-olds who viewed a video with parents and then were questioned by them about the story or encouraged to repeat parts of it learned more than those who watched without being questioned.

Sesame Street first aired 45 years ago. The show was conceived to help close the early education gap between high- and low-income children, and it was wonderfully successful. Controlling for other factors, children who watched Sesame Street achieved more at many levels, even into high school, than those who hadn’t.

Now a few researchers are positing that perhaps tablets and touchscreens can do for children under 3 what Sesame Street did for the 3-and-ups. In other words, because touchscreens are interactive and young children learn a lot through touch, tablets might be able to teach toddlers where static screens have previously failed.

A 6-month-old may not have yet learned how to distinguish between real life and a symbol.

One of those researchers is Heather Kirkorian at the University of Wisconsin. In one of her studies, she had 2-year-olds watch a video of a cartoon bear hiding, then she covered the screen and asked kids to look at a felt board where she’d printed out the same objects that were in the video. The children were asked to point to what object the bear was hiding behind on the felt board. When the screen was interactive and the children had to touch the bear to see where it would go, they were almost twice as likely to identify where it was hidden afterward on the felt board than if they’d just watched the video with no interaction.

Why does touch make a difference? That’s a question Kirkorian is investigating in her current research.

“This is still really early days,” Kirkorian says about the application of her research. “Whether this translates into kids learning letters and numbers or getting larger vocabularies from mobile apps before starting kindergarten, we have no idea about that yet.”

A ‘luxurious problem’

There’s consensus on several screen time issues: Early exposure to violence is bad. Background television is distracting. Entertainment that’s too fast-paced or lacks narrative has little value. However, it may be that thinking about the context in which screen time takes place is more productive for families than a blanket no-screen policy, as well as considering the nature of the content. For parents looking for something proscriptive, several of the researchers I spoke with cited Zero to Three’s research-backed guidelines for screens for children under 3.

Toddlers lack impulse control, and not finding immediate gratification can be a good learning experience. So while using an iPhone as a pacifier might not dwell in the book of parenting best practices, it’s also might be—dare I say it—not that big of a deal. Saber Khan, who is the ed-tech manager for an urban charter school in New York City, calls the screen-time dilemma a “luxurious problem to have.”

A few researchers are positing that perhaps tablets and touchscreens can do for children under 3 what Sesame Street did for the 3-and-ups.

Many of Khan’s middle and high school students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and he’s tasked with bringing them up to speed in digital literacy. Most of his students have smartphones, but many have little exposure to regular computers and must catch up on simple tasks, like naming a file and using the cut-and-paste function.

“Meaningful use of technology is pretty rare,” Khan says of the classroom, but to him that just means the challenge to educators is to use digital tools better, to help kids be productive, and also to learn the necessary skills to work in a digital world.

Khan encouraged his school not to block YouTube and Netflix. He thinks it’s better for students to indulge and realize the consequences of their mistakes, so they can learn self-control, rather than rely on network prohibition.

“I would love to change screen time into productive screen time,” Khan says, but he doesn’t have any broad proscriptions. It’s not just a kid-issue, after all.  “I’m struggling with screen time myself.”


Photos via Alex Buhrmann/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Jon Fife/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Rob Price