Screen Time

April 18th through 24th is “Screen-Free Week.”  I’m no fan of annual efforts to highlight and mitigate the damage inflicted by a society in which the best interests of children are too often ignored.   Raising public awareness is critical, I know.  But like yo-yo dieting, the results are often fleeting.  So I had to be dragged into the fray by my colleague, Dana Friedman, at the Early Years Institute.  Their April enewsletter, touting a “Screen-Free Alternatives Guide,” offered an irresistible opportunity to catch up on the latest research  and “Generation M²,”  as the 2010 report  by the Kaiser Family Foundation dubs the most media-centric youth of all time.

Full disclosure:  I’m a zealot on this issue.  I reared my own kids on a zero tolerance media policy.  Right before my first child was born, in a fit of pique with the cable company, his father and I ditched our TV set, condemning our son to an early childhood without Sesame Street.   By the time his sister came along, six years later, we still were screen-free, a state of innocence that continued—with the occasional lapse at the homes of plugged-in friends and family—until our household was divided, and a VCR player appeared in dad’s house.  The machine had entered the garden. Further incursions were inevitable, of course, and wouldn’t you know that my daughter, “Ms. Dramatic Play,” herself, chose a high school with a laptop program.  She, who regularly took herself to the library to smell the books, was now sleeping with a computer.  Which would, in time, offer her ample opportunity to catch up on all the TV she had missed in her earlier youth.  So much for good intentions.

Media use is exploding—in case, like most of us, you’ve been too busy clicking, typing, texting, downloading, TIVO-ing, BlackBerry IMing, friending, web-surfing, pod-casting to notice.   Today, by age three, most of our nation’s children are active media users, declares a recent Future of Children report, Media and Young Children’s Learning.    We’re in the middle of a revolution, and the changes are dizzying, challenging child development experts, researchers, parents, teachers, and policymakers to keep pace. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends no screen time for children under the age of  two,  brings dire findings from science: Media use, they tell us, is linked to aggressive behavior; early sexual intercourse; use of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs; obesity, and decreased school achievement.  As if that were not enough, new research is investigating the relationship between overstimulation from high levels of media use and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (a.k.a. ADHD), as well as sleep and eating disorders.

Still, electronic media are enmeshed in the fabric of daily life, leaving even our youngest children vulnerable to the above-mentioned outcomes.  Here’s a very quick summary of where the children are, media-wise, today:

Birth to Six

  • Nearly all children from six months to six years old watch TV (94%) and DVDs (87%), 43% use a computer, and 29% console video games, with 80% of children in this age group spending an average of just under two hours  in a typical day doing so.
  • 41% of children from the ages of two to three spend two or more hours with screen media daily.
  • Children with media in their bedrooms are significantly more likely to use these media regularly and spend substantially more time using them overall.  While most children six years and under don’t have TV’s or other media in their bedrooms, many do, including 29% of two- to three-year-olds and 43% of four- to six-year-olds.
  • Nearly seven in ten parents (68%) report that their child imitates behavior seen on TV.  Boys in both age ranges (2-3 and 4-6) are more likely than girls to imitate aggressive behavior, with nearly half of all parents of four- to six-year-old boys confirming this phenomenon.

Eight to Eighteen

  • From 2005 to 2010, young people’s media consumption increased by an hour and seventeen minutes daily, from almost six and a half to more than seven and a half hours. With multi-tasking and multi-media usage, today’s youth consume a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of content in their seven and a half hours—an increase of almost 2 ¼ hours of media exposure per day over the past five years.
  • 71% of all eight- to eighteen-year-olds have a TV in their bedroom; half have a video game player or cable TV, and a third have a computer and Internet access.
  • A sizeable number of eight- to ten-year-olds have their own mobile media devices: 65% have a handheld game player; a third have a cell phone, and 17% have their own laptop.
  • Video game use has increased significantly, with 60% of eight- to eighteen-year-olds—most often on cell phones and handheld devices—spending an average of an hour and 15 minutes playing on a typical day.

Overwhelmed?  That best describes parents all over the nation, who, as always, want to do right by their children, but whose stress levels can’t get any higher, and who rely on media for managing their households, their children, and their sanity.   We can’t go back to the garden—we’re too far along the path—but we owe it to the current and next M² generation to know the risks, and to help our children navigate an increasingly crowded and complex media landscape that offers promise and peril.  You can start right here, with Dr. Michael Rich, “The Mediatrician.”  As a former filmmaker, he understands, firsthand, that the medium is the message.


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