Media and your Child’s Development

By Robert D. Keder, MD, Developmental Pediatrics

child using a laptopMedia (including television, mobile devices, music, computers, and videogames) has a very strong influence on child development. This influence can be positive or negative. The research on the effects of media on child development and health led the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to ask all pediatricians to help families understand these risks and benefits.

In the past, television was the primary source of electronic media for children. Past research found that two things are important regarding media use:

  1. How much you watch. Screen time refers to how much time you spend watching media. Watching too much media is connected to poor sleep, obesity, behavior problems, and poor school performance. Old recommendations were to limit screen time to less than 2 hours a day.
  2. What you watch. Are you familiar with the expression, “You are what you eat?” The same concept can be said for what type of media you use/watch. Violent shows and games can desensitize children and promote bad behaviors. Programs can also have inappropriate messaging for children by promoting the use of sex, drugs, and alcohol.

Now, media is everywhere. It is in your pocket or purse on your smart phone. There is also more and more interactive media including social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and educational programming. Each of these have new risks and benefits.

  1. Social media. When introduced at the right age, social media can facilitate learning, networking, and friendships. Things like Face Time and Skype can help children stay in touch and develop relationships with extended family members. However, when social media introduced too early it can get in the way of forming real life friendships. When used inappropriately it can lead to cyberbullying, loss of privacy, and/or poor self-esteem. It is important to help children learn how to use social media and the internet safely; this is called digital citizenship.
  2. Educational games, programs, and apps. There are a lot of programs out there that are great for children. Programs that promote art, music, and creativity can be great for children and teens. Media that promote family discussion about news and events can be helpful. Content appropriate games that promote in real life turn-taking and social interaction are also great for kids. Be careful about programs that are too fast-paced, violent, or mature for children as these definitely have a negative impact on their health and development.

I have young children. What should I know?

There is a lot of brain development during the first years of a child’s life. No type of media is more important than children having hands-on, unstructured, play time with adults and other children. This is how children build language, academic, and social-emotional skills. Here are some tips:

For children less than 18-months old:

  • Try not to use any screen media other than video chatting with relatives.

For children 18 to 24-months old:

  • Use high quality media with a child together.

All children 5 and younger:

  • Limit screen time to 1-hour or less a day of high quality programming.
  • Avoid screen time during meals.
  • Do not allow screen time for 1-hour before bedtime for health sleep.
  • Try not to use media or mobile devices to calm children down when upset.

What about older children and teens?

School age children and teens have a lot of access to technology and media. Media can be helpful for homework and learning. It can also be distracting and problematic too. In this age group, a simple 2-hour limit is not an effective approach for everyone. Here are some tips:

  • Make a family media use plan at www.HealthyChildren.org/MediaUsePlan
  • Watch/play/participate with your child. This keeps you in the loop of what they are doing and allows for you to talk and teach about what they are exposed to.
  • Make sure your child gets in one hour a day of physical activity.
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep. This can range from 8 to 12 hours a day depending on age. Keep televisions and mobile devices out of the bedroom.
  • Discourage teenagers from digital multitasking. Keep homework time separate from intentional medial time.
  • Talk about internet safety and how to treat others on the internet.

There are thousands of apps and games out there. How do I keep up on what is good and what is not?

It is overwhelming how many shows, games, and apps are out there. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have a wide range of appropriate and inappropriate content. Websites like YouTube also have good and not good content. Here are some tips:

  • Commonsense Media is a great resource that can help you understand and breakdown almost any show, app, and game viewed/played by children today. It can tell you how old a child should be for watching/playing and what types of positive and negative messages are in each program.
  • For young children, PBS Kids and Sesame Workshop offer high-quality educational apps, programs, and games.
  • Learn how to set the parental control setting on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
  • Do not allow free range YouTube access. Only allow young children to use YouTube Kids for short periods of time.
  • All videogames and television programs have a rating system. Learn how to understand them.

Dr. Keder is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician. Learn more about Connecticut Children’s developmental pediatrics division

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