Is TV the New Corn Syrup?

If you have a child, or friends with kids in your life, you probably saw the recent New York Post article somewhere in your social media feed, complete with its click-bait-ish title: “It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies.” Fear-mongering headline aside, the question raised is a good one, especially for those of us who are A/V fans. When it comes to developing brains, how much media is too much?

It’s no secret that kids are consuming more media than ever before. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “today's children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices.” Taken in perspective, that’s equal to or greater than the amount of time spent in school each day. Common Sense Media has even higher estimates, with tweens spending about 6 hours, and teens around 9 hours daily in front of a media device.

This is a significant amount above the recently released AAP guidelines, which recommend allowing a maximum of two hours per day of high-quality material for older children, and avoiding all television and other entertainment media for infants and children under age 2.

Taken in the context of a kid growing up pre-smartphone, those numbers seem rather doable. Many of us came home, did our homework, and caught our favorite show before bedtime. Until recently, watching a screen during lunch or on the bus wasn’t a possibility. But with the proliferation of portable media devices, consumption has ballooned exponentially. So quickly, in fact, there aren’t many studies available to assess what effect so much screen time has on kids.

Unfortunately, the data that is available isn’t very reassuring. Again, according to the AAP, “studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” One study they point to as evidence deals with electronic toys and language development. In it, parents played with their kids either with educational electronic toys, traditional toys, or books.

The results of this study? “Play with electronic toys is associated with decreased quantity and quality of language input compared with play with books or traditional toys. To promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.” So not only is that yammering/blinking plaything annoying to you, it’s possible it also is stunting your child’s linguistic growth.

Well, crap. By this point, you’re probably wondering how realistic all these recommendations are. Screens are everywhere! How are we supposed to limit our kids’ exposure without moving into a yurt in northern Saskatchewan? In an interview with NPR earlier this year, David Hill, chairman of the AAP Council on Communications and Media and a member of the AAP Children, Adolescents and Media Leadership Working Group compared the evolving AAP media recommendations to our former views on tobacco and lead paint: “There was a time when eliminating smoking indoors, removing lead from gasoline and paint, and restraining children in cars were all seen as unrealistic recommendations that no one would ever follow. And yet each of these practices has been widely adopted with profoundly positive effects on child health.”

He cautions that he is not yet directly comparing the effects of media to the negative effects of lead and tobacco. Instead he says, “The question before us is whether electronic media use in children is more akin to diet or to tobacco use. With diet, harm reduction measures seem to be turning the tide of the obesity epidemic. With tobacco, on the other hand, there really is no safe level of exposure at any age. My personal opinion is that the diet analogy will end up being more apt.”

So, until we know more, it seems moderation is key, especially when it comes to younger brains. For many of us, this is a hard pill to swallow, myself included. While my one-year-old gets no screen time yet, some of the things I most look forward to experiencing with him involve media. “What age is optimal to first see Star Wars” is a topic of discussion in my home. We play Bowie, Debussy, and Bob Marley on the Bluetooth speaker during dinner. I record iPhone videos of his infancy the way my parents curated a photo album of my childhood. We want to share the art we love without harming his development.

A small glimmer of hope: there is some debate when considering how the screen is used. Experts are saying that video chatting with grandma, for example, is far healthier than zoning out in front of YouTube. Perhaps this interaction, consuming and then discussing television, movies, music, etc may prove to make a difference. The thing is, we really don’t know. There are more solid guidelines expected from the AAP next month. Until then, we’re all just doing the best we can. Hopefully, our grandparent’s admonition of “that stuff will rot your brain” isn’t true after all.