When I was a kid, there was one TV in our house. It was in the living room and we had to decide, as a family, what to watch. If “Goof Troop” and “My Little Pony” were on at the same time, there was an argument between my sisters and me, just as there would be argument between kids and adults when “The Simpsons” interfered with something as unimportant/uninteresting as a State of the Union address. I also remember getting our first computer (which was essentially a typewriter with a screen), and later, a computer that could connect to the Internet (via the digital cacophony of a dial-up modem). These devices were each in separate rooms, so I had to decide where to tether myself for the media that I chose to use. (Someone recently pointed out to me that you never had to say “Where are you?” as a question on the phone when we were growing up, because we knew where they were: they were at home, where their phone was. Depending on your age, perhaps your friends were quite literally tethered — by a very, very long cord — to the kitchen phone).
Things sure have changed, huh? Today we have more access to more media than at any other point in human history. The same will be true tomorrow.
With the advent of cellphones, and then smartphones, and now wifi networks, we have become more connected more often than we have ever been. TV is digital, too, allowing us to watch what we want, when we want; high-speed digital networks even allow us to take our “content” wherever we go so we can watch it on whatever device we want to use.
All of this means we are swimming in a sea of media from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep: nearly 90% of Americans use the internet; around 77% of Americans own a smartphone; and over 350 million Americans (nearly 94%) have access to TV in their homes. Note that the chart below shows the increase in media use since 2000, so all that tremendous growth represents less than two decades.
Increasingly, we use multiple screens at once, compounding these effects. Most of us have surfed the web on a laptop or tablet while the TV plays in the background (or have surreptitiously checked our email on our smartphones during a boring meeting). This distracted behavior is called “content grazing,” and more than 70% of adults admit to doing it within the last three months (Shin & Biocca, 2017). As you no doubt know, it is largely a passive behavior, such as playing “Words with Friends” as the Phillies play in the background. However, neuroscience has discovered that when you’re doing multiple things at the same time, your brain is not fully committed to either behavior, so you don’t get the full “dose” of either. While that finding may not be surprising, research suggests that “content grazing” negatively impacts both short-term and long-term memory; essentially, if you’re not at least mostly engaged in something, you might as well not have done it at all (Watson, 2017).
So, today we’re swimming in media, and we’re grazing on it, and while all of that is happening at that steep growth rate shown above, our brains have not evolved nearly as quickly — while our species has been around for about 250,000 years, television has been around for around 75 years, or barely a blip of time. The question that all of this information begs, of course, what effect this tremendous change in the way we interact with our environment affects our brains, especially the rapidly-growing brains of our children.
Multi-screen media consumption by children means their exposure to advertising is multiplied, too. We know that well beyond our consumer behavior, ads affect how we see the world; they impact how we interact with other people and even the development of a value system (Buijzen & Valkenburg, 2003; Connell, Brucks, & Nielsen, 2013).
Also, many children watch television with little to no supervision, so not only are they exposed to ads for things targeted at them (sugary cereals, toys, fast food, etc.), they also see ads that are inappropriate for their developmental level without an adult there to provide context — for example, my five-year-old goddaughter saw an ad for “The Walking Dead” while playing Solitaire on her tablet. A parent may understandably struggle to explain the content of such an ad to a five-year-old, and that’s if they are even aware of the exposure in the first place (who knew that there were ads on Solitaire?!). When content that is “too old for them” goes unexplained or under-explained, children may internalize those messages on their own, which can have negative impacts (Opree, Buijzen, & van Reijmersdal, 2016).
To be fair, some media can be beneficial to children…
If it’s age-appropriate, media specifically designed for young children, such as “Sesame Street” or PBS Kids can facilitate neuropsychological development (Radesky Christakis, 2016) by promoting fine motor skill development, self-regulation, and the acquisition of knowledge (Christakis, Garrison, & Herrenkohl, 2013). Using video chatting software may even facilitate closer relationships with distant relatives while also exposing children to social-emotional communicative content (e.g., facial expressions, body posture) which help develop their social skills acquisition (Christakis, et al., 2013; Opree, et al., 2016). While no media can replace warm, structured familial interaction, media can be used to complement parent-child time (Radesky & Christakis, 2016; Radesky, Silverstein, Zuckerman & Christakis, 2014). Practically speaking, we can also use media as a soothing device for children — or their parents, really (e.g., every airport layover ever).
…just be aware of the potential side effects
There is a vast body of research which reflects negative effects of over-use of media: it has been linked to childhood obesity, poor sleep hygiene, and poorer working memory skills (Watson, 2017); it can lead to lagging or under-developed self-regulatory skills (Pagani, Fitzpatrick, Barnett, & Dubow, 2010). Additionally, earlier age of media use onset, greater cumulative hours of media use, and non-PBS content are each significant predictors of poor executive functioning in preschoolers (Nathanson, Alade, Sharp, Rasmussen, & Christy, 2014). Furthermore, more home media use leads to less parent-child interaction, which correlates with less family warmth, poorer verbal communication, and less understanding of non-verbal communicative cues (Pagani, et al., 2010; Linebarger, Barr, LaPierre, & Piotrowski, 2014). Essentially, the earlier they start and the more they consume (especially if it’s not designed for them), the less they are able to relate to their family members and to the wider world.
Adults, of course, are part of the equation as well, even more than we might realize. Nielsen reports that adults consume 10 hours and 39 minutes per day of media content (Perrin, 2015), and while not all of that content is viewed while children are around, a significant amount of it is. In fact, we are barely aware of how much media we are consuming, tending to estimate our media use at about 60% of our actual consumption (Perrin, 2015). “Background” television use distracts from parent-child interactions and child play (Nathanson, et al., 2014). Heavy parent use of mobile devices is associated with fewer verbal and nonverbal interactions between parents and children, which negatively impacts the development of social skills (Jago, Stamatakis, & Gama, 2012; Linebarger, et al., 2014), and is associated with more parent-child conflict (Jago, et al., 2012). Perhaps most importantly, parent media use is a strong predictor of child media habits, so reducing parental media use may be a critical behavior change in improving parent-child interactions (Linebarger, et al., 2014).
How many screens are in your house?
Simply put, when the media was contained to a single place in home, the impact of that media was easier to regulate and mediate. Now that media has become so pervasive, parents and professionals are scrambling to catch up. Professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have stepped into this void by creating research-based “best practice” guidelines for families regarding media use. The vast majority of these recommendations can be implemented at home through communication and planning, though working with professionals is certainly appropriate if there are specific needs or complicating factors.
The American Academy of Pediatrics created an online resource to guide to help parents and children work together to create a family “media plan.” They also drafted two different sets of media guidelines: one for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers; and one for children 5-18. Some of their guidelines include:
- For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
- For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
- For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
- Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
- Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.
It’s all about moderation
Clearly, there are multiple developmental and health concerns for children overusing all forms of digital media. Parents must invest the effort to filter content to include only educational and prosocial topics, and we must engage with our children about technology to enable them to actually benefit from our media-soaked culture. We should create “unplugged” spaces in our homes (e.g., the dinner table) focused on social interaction. We must make ourselves aware of the ubiquity of media-connected devices and strive to engage those technologies in new and creative ways with their children. And both adults and children need to remember that, as appealing as media may be, it does not take the place of sleep, exercise, play, social connection, reading, or hard work.
We must keep in mind that while we adults are learning to navigate our increasingly connected and media-saturated world, this our children’s native environment. They will never know a world in which most of human knowledge (and a good deal of low-quality nonsense, too) is available instantly on a rectangle you carry in your pocket. Today, children are born in the midst of that ocean of information and opinion (and nonsense), and it may be exhausting for us to try to “keep up,” but we are the ones in their lives with a user’s guide for life, and therefore the only ones who can help them navigate the currents, discard the flotsam and jetsam, and avoid the rocks. Just as we would never send our young children off in a boat, alone, without training, experience, a map and a GPS system and a satellite phone (not to mention a lifejacket), we cannot disengage from active participation in the media habits of our children and expect that they will have a smooth journey or, indeed, that they will ever arrive anywhere at all.
We may be learning to balance our own use of media, and it may be a messy process, but our children need active adult guidance in navigating the world of media, and it’s not something they can just “pick up” along the way. Technology is a tool — we control it, not the other way around — and the only way our children will learn this perspective is if we model it for them and with them.
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