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Q&a With Dr. Sara Connolly: Infant Screen Time

1. Bundoo: The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended no screen time for any children under the age of two. However, it seems like they might be changing that recommendation soon. What do we know about what’s happening?

Answer : The current recommendation is to avoid all electronic media (TVs, computers, tablets, video games, etc.) before the age of 18 months and then to use them to video communicate (i.e., FaceTime, video chat) exclusively until age 2. After age 2, use is appropriate for no more than one hour a day after until age 5.  The new policy, called “Media Use and the Young Mind” released in October 2016, represents updated recommendations, from the previous guidance that advised no screen time for children under age 2. As our lives become more intertwined in electronic media, there has been a big push to formally study its effects on babies and children. The new guidelines reflect the results of that formal study.

2. According to research, most children under one year of age have already logged pretty significant screen time. As a pediatrician and parent yourself, what are your thoughts on this? Do you have a personal limit or do you stick with the current recommendations?

Answer : Based on my understanding of both the current recommendations and the developing brain, I agree with limiting all electronic media exposure in children under age 18 months. As a parent myself, I followed this recommendation to the letter. After age 18 months, I think it’s important to really limit screen time to as little as possible and after 2 to choose only educational programs for the moments when you make an exception. As a general rule, if the TV show or game moves too quickly for your brain to enjoy and make sense of, it also moves too quickly for the developing brain.

3. There are a lot of apps and programs out there that claim to be educational for young children. Do you support any of these? If so, which ones? If not, why not?

Answer : I think the educational “claim” is part of the problem. The great majority of these apps are not formally studied  so we don’t really know if they are educational or not. The new AAP report highlights apps and programming from both Sesame Street and PBS as being educationally sound. Television shows have been better studied, and so we know that fast-moving shows (think SpongeBob, Power Puff Girls, Baby Einstein) are NOT educational, but programs such as the old fashioned Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, which moves even slower than real life, have been found to be educational to some level.

4. We’ve read some things from physical therapists recently that developmental milestones, such as using pincer fingers, are being pushed back because infants are being taught to “swipe” instead. Have you seen anything like this in your practice?

Answer : I see kids swiping everything, everywhere! My own 5-year-old swiped at the in-seat TV on an airplane just the other day and gave me a curious look when nothing happened. Kids are smart and learn to swipe, which isn’t bad. I’m not sure I buy the idea they cannot pincer grasp or make other milestones simply because they spend time on a tablet. However, for those kids who use a tablet, it’s important that they are offered ample time to do other developmentally appropriate play as well.

5. At the end of the day, how can parents — many of whom probably spend 8 hours a day on a screen themselves — teach healthy screen habits?

Answer : Unplug, unplug, unplug. It can be so hard, but it’s really worth it. Read to them using paper books, play with them using traditional, simple toys such as blocks, and put your own phones away during the times when you are engaging in play. For working parents, a great goal is to put all electronics away from the time you arrive home in the evening until your child goes to bed. For stay-at-home parents, you might designate two long blocks of time each day where your own electronics are out of sight. For those people who are accustomed to the “background” noise of having a TV on in the house, switch to background music instead — and not from your TV screen!

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