This blog post may harm your baby

Last week Slate posted an article titled “This app will not harm your baby“.  It discussed a recent complaint brought to the Federal Trade Commission against Fisher Price by the the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC).  The CCFC press release describing the complaint states that:

Both Fisher-Price and Open Solutions claim that their mobile apps will “teach” babies skills and information—including words and numbers—before they are even old enough to take their first steps. But neither company offers any evidence to back up their claims. To date, not a single credible scientific study has shown that babies can acquire language or math skills from interacting with screens. In addition screen time may be harmful for babies. Research links infant screen time to sleep disturbances and delayed language acquisition, as well as problems in later childhood, such as poor school performance and childhood obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends discouraging screen time for children under two.

For context, CCFC are the same folks who brought a successful complaint against the Baby Einstein program for deceptive advertising a few years back.

Over at Slate, author Hanna Rosin is unconvinced that apps aimed at toddlers are such a bad idea:

There are two ways to approach the strange new reality of electronic toy invasion of pristine babyhood. A parent can pretend it’s not happening and insist on a nostalgic vision of childhood dominated by bubble blowing and sand-castle building, or parents can make reasonable choices about, say, how many and which apps they will let their toddler play with and have reasonable expectations for results (that it will occupy your baby, not groom her for Harvard).

News stories about this latest children’s media war repeat the same claims that the CCFC made about Baby Einstein—that studies have shown that children under 2 who are exposed to media develop ADHD or score lower on certain tests or are more likely to develop some kind of delinquency later in life. But those studies are highly disputed, and there are many that show the opposite: that children can easily learn things if the media is designed correctly, as I outline in a recent Atlantic story on children and touch technology. The CCFC is exaggerating when they say there are no credible scientific studies that show kids can learn from apps. There aren’t that many, because apps aren’t that old, but there is plenty of exciting research showing that apps, because they are interactive, are precisely the right kind of technology for kids.

I think Ms Rosin is a bit too flippant about the potential harm of promoting screen-based devices to children (yes, I am lumping interactive media like ipads in with passive media like TV, largely because I’ve been involved in research suggesting that that video games are bad for kids’ health).  Yes, kids may learn something from an app.  Perhaps this exciting new research will show that kids are able to learn X, Y or Z from apps.  It would be pretty surprising if they weren’t able to learn anything from an ipad.  So we can wait for that research to come out.  But there is lots, and lots, and lots of research which suggests that the more time that kids spend in front of screens, the more likely they are to develop a chronic disease or have reduced psychological health.  That’s why groups like the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and the American Academy of Pediatrics discourage screen time for young children.  

Screen-time is like the junk food of the activity world.  Yes, it may have some good qualities if you squint hard enough (screen time may help you learn to count, just like Coke is a source of energy).  And yes, most kids will be fine if they spend some time in front of a screen from time to time, just like I survived all the Fluffernutters I ate in elementary school.  But that doesn’t mean we should be promoting screen-based activities to parents, or give a free pass to those who do (this is likely where Ms Rosin and I diverge the most).

Full disclosure – I have no children of my own, and have spent a limited amount of time caring for other people’s children.  And I’m sure I’ll plunk my kids in front of a TV or ipad at some point in the future.   But that doesn’t mean that the screen time is going to be good for them.

If there are any parents out there, I’d love to hear your take on the issue.


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