In 1999, when TVs and desktops dominated, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its famous recommendation that children use no electronic screens before the age of 2.
Then in 2016 came an about face: If screens were used for something like video chat with faraway relatives or for looking at photos, they could be a good thing for kids of any age.
This new recommendation surely came as a relief to many parents but also made things more complicated: When is screen time good for kids? How much is bad for them? And how are we supposed to know the difference?
Anya Kamenetz is NPR’s lead digital education correspondent — and a parent herself. She’s talked with a wide range of experts on the effects of technology exposure on kids and discovered there’s less solid science than you might imagine to demonstrate screens are harmful or helpful to their development.
On Think, host Krys Boyd talked with Kamenetz about why it’s unrealistic to forbid screen use even for young children and also why it’s important to recognize how much TV, computer or phone time is too much and why.
Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length,
On the dandelion and orchid theory
This is a theory that’s been put forth by social scientists who study media effects to explain a puzzling reality: We see that media is everywhere, we can tell that it can have profound effects, and yet, the effects that we’ve investigated tend to be pretty small.
Most of our kids in this digital media-rich environment are like dandelions — they’re pretty resilient to what they’re taking in. A small percentage, however, may be more sensitive; they may be like orchids. They may be particularly drawn to that kind of media and that media might not be the most beneficial for their development.
How can you tell if your kid's an orchid?
You can pragmatically observe your kid and see some pretty clear red flags. The biggest, most well-defined effects from media have to do with sleep and obesity. When kids use screens late at night, when they use them past their bedtime, it really interferes with sleep. And we see that large amounts of screen time, over two hours a day, can increase the risk of obesity.
Putting those two aside, when your kid seems to have a problematic relationship with their screen media — when it seems to be the only thing they prefer to do, the only thing that helps when they have a bad day, if you see them being explosive when it’s turned off, if they’re sneaking around to use it — those are some of the red flags to tell you that your kid might be one of those orchids.
Why definitive research is limited
We don’t have the gold standard, randomized, controlled trial evidence that we would like to have, and in the cases that we do, it’s quite old. For example, violence in the media is something that’s been investigated for decades. Back in the 1960s, there were these trials where they showed kids video of an inflatable Bobo the Clown being beaten up. Then, some kids would go and hit the clown if given the chance.
When you’re asking questions from today about kids with attention disorders, or kids with emotional issues, we’re not having those kinds of investigations because they would just never go by an ethics board today.
In a more recent trial where parents were asked to reduce screen time, it just didn’t work. They ended up reducing it by about 20 minutes per week, and it just wasn’t enough to make a difference that could be investigated in a scientific way.
I surveyed over 500 parents to talk about what they do at home with screens, and I think it’s important to recognize that parents are in a lot of different kinds of circumstances. It’s never been harder to raise kids in the United States, when you think about the demands on people as far as work, two working parents, long commutes. And parents are often bringing home work as well.
I think there’s an awareness gap in terms of the kinds of media we grew up with and the effects we might be seeing with kids today.
On social consequences for teens not having a phone
Just like with any child-rearing decision that goes against the grain socially, a parent might feel very strongly about it, and a kid may grow to thank you, they may rebel, they may sneak around and quietly rebel. That’s like the possible range of responses, right?
There’s no law against raising your kid in a cabin without electricity, and there’s no law about raising your kid without a smartphone. But in terms of how far you’re going from the norm of teenage life and what kind of price might you have to pay, that’s something families really need to consider for themselves.
It is such a gray area, the research frontiers are really just a step behind the demand in terms of what parents want to know.
Why you should consume media with your kids
Whether your child is a toddler or a teenager, some of the time that they’re consuming media needs to be spent with you. With young children, you can talk about and point things out on the screen, and as they get older, you can move on to themes and opinions.
As they get older, oftentimes, the conversation becomes about monitoring and limiting, but we can also have a positive current of conversation. Even if you’re not curious about the latest app, you should be because you’re teens are doing stuff, and it’s stuff that they love, and you have a chance to learn and get something from it and figure out a little bit more about what they’re doing.
Kamenetz’s new book is called, “The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life.”