Contrary to Claims, Not All Media Is Bad For Kids Under 12

It’s been quite a week in the children’s media world. While preparing for the week ahead last Sunday, I noticed an article on Huffington Post that was spreading virally through my friends on Facebook. The article was a call to ban all hand-held devices from children under the age of 12. Backing up the claim, the author cited a long list of research on why kids should not engage with screen media at all.

Unfortunately, she misread much of the research by making that cardinal error in research of confusing correlation with cause. For example, several studies have looked at ADHD and media use with children, and some have found a link between the two. But that doesn’t mean media causes ADHD. Maybe instead children who have been diagnosed with ADHD have a greater interest in media consumption, or there might be some third unknown factor that is the real root of the problem. This mistake is an all too often occurrence, especially with many sensational headline seeking journalists.

On top of this, she offered not a single mention of anything positive about screen media.

Shortly after the article was posted, two great responses to this piece were published. The first was by David Kleeman, Glenda Revelle and Jessica Taylor Piotrowski entitled 10 Reasons Why We Need Research Literacy, Not Scare Columns and the second was by Melinda Wenner Moyer of Slate called Hands Off My Kid’s iPad: A Huffington Post Blogger’s Shaky Case for Banning Hand-held Devices for Children. Both articles go through the original claims, piece by piece, and demonstrate what is wrong with the original argument.

There may be important differences between linear media use (also known as TV) and interactive media (like apps that are used on smartphones and tablets.)

While all of this was going on, a noteworthy voice from the children’s media research world, Dimitri Christakis, serendipitously published an opinion called Interactive Media Use at Younger Than the Age of 2 Years – Time to Rethink the American Academy of Pediatrics Guideline? You may be unfamiliar with Christakis’ work, but you probably know its impact. Years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a warning to parents that they should not allow their children under age 2 to engage in screen media use at all, and they should limit the screen time of children under age 3. Christakis’ earlier work helped shape this recommendation. In the meantime, parents who do let their children use their smartphone or tablet have been beating themselves up, feeling like terrible, horrible, no good, very bad parents.

Well, Christakis is now suggesting that there may very well be important differences between linear media use (also known as television) and interactive media (like apps that are used on smartphones and tablets.) While more research is still needed, his statement is a giant first step to recognizing that maybe, just maybe, smartphones and tablets can be a benefit to early learning in some circumstances.

With that said, parents reading this, please know that while not all screens are created equal, the same is true for interactive content. Not all apps for kids that claim they are helpful are good for your child. However, a smaller number of carefully and thoughtfully developed products, often ones that are guided by research and testing, can be of benefit to young children.

So how do you tell the difference? Here’s a few commonsense recommendations to help guide you:

  • Parents should only use screen media in moderation with their young child if they use it at all.
  • Never use it as a babysitter or a replacement for human contact.
  • Engage in interactive media together with your child; you will be surprised at how much that helps in the learning.
  • Know that not all media is created equal. Some apps are of great benefit to learning, others are nothing more than poison. Two resources to help determine which is which are  Common Sense Media and  Children’s Technology Review. These sites rate interactive media products, and their appropriateness for users of all ages.

For those of you looking for more guidance, the Rogers Center’s Framework for Quality offers advice on how to identify quality media tools across a range of platforms.

This discussion is far from over, but in just the last few days the conversation related to young children and interactive media use has taken a very large and important step forward. That’s good news for parents, and those of use who wish to do good for children in the interactive space. I can’t wait to see what next week brings.

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