Education Opinion

Pediatricians Release New Media Policy Statement

By Justin Reich — October 29, 2013 4 min read
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The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a short three-page statement updating it’s policy on children and media. On most of the specifics, I have a great deal of sympathy for the Academy’s positions. In the larger view though, I worry that the report borrows too much from the language of fear and risk at the expense of helping children, parents and caregivers navigate a path towards an empowered position towards media.

One cardinal rule remains from the days of televsion: no screen time for children under two. The early years are a critical time for development, and television and media time displaces time for interacting with other people and developing language, empathy, and social norms. If I was in a quibbling mood, I could come up with several uses of media for children under two that enhance interaction-- like video chatting with a grandpa on the other side of the country or looking and talking about family photos on an online photo album. But I’m sympathetic to the constraints of a short report, and “no media under two” is probably a better place to start giving advice from then “generally speaking media displaces human interaction, but there may be some media uses that encourage interaction which might with futher study prove to be neutral or even prosocial.”

The primary advice for pediatricians is to start including two media habit questions in the annual exam routine: “How much recreational screen time does your child or teenager consume daily? Is there a television set or Internet-connected device in the child’s bedroom?” These questions are meant to open a conversation about screen-time behavior that seems not to be happening in many families, because the key point of advice for parents is straightforward: it’s time to set rules.

The report citesa recent study showing that 70% of children and teens claim that their parents set no rules about children’s media consumption. Pediatricians are particularly concerned about two consequences of a rule-free, screen-saturated childhood: first, young people are increasingly-exposed to sexually explicit and violent materials at ever younger ages, and second, screentime is increasingly cutting into time for sleep. The Academy doesn’t offer a comprehensive suggested rule set for parents to adopt or borrow from, but does single out one suggested rule: a mealtime ban and a bedtime curfew for media devices: televisions, tablets, phones, and whatever else we invent between now and the five year renewal of the policy. As a parent, I’m sympathetic to the challenges of coming up with a rule set for media that didn’t exist when I was a kid.

This finding and recommendation has particular importance for school systems that are creating policies encouraging 1-1 device ownership and usage. Schools: if you are giving kids tablets to take home, you are sending those tablets into communities where 70% of parents will have no guidelines for their use. If you don’t help parents think through those challenges as part of a 1-1 program, learning gains from school settings can be offset by problems with sleep, family strife and so forth. Parents and families need help and guidance in order to be good partners in a 1:1 program.

If there is one specific line in the report I’m not happy with, it is “schools that do use new technologies like iPads need to have strict rules about what students can access.” One the one hand, there should be strict rules for serious transgressions, but a compliance-oriented framework isn’t what keeps kids safe throughout their whole lives. What keeps them safe throughout their lives is a rich dialogue with adults about cultivating good judgment and good media habits.

And this is where I think the tone of the piece is problematic. The framing of the document is “media is dangerous, but can have some benefits.” From the first paragraph: “Although media are not the leading cause of any major health problem in the United States, the evidence is now clear that they can and do contribute substantially to many different risks and health problems and that children and teenagers learn from, and may be negatively influenced by, the media. However, media literacy and prosocial uses of media may enhance knowledge, connectedness, and health.” The argument leads with risks and footnotes benefits.

It is hard to communicate a clear message in a short policy document, and I certainly share the Academy’s concern that parents need help creating new family norms to govern media uses in the home. There need to be strict limits. But these strict limits need to be couched in a broader context of helping young people learn to control the media in their lives: to be empowered to use media in ways that help them learn and grow and to develop the discipline to turn things off and enjoy unmediated time.

Setting strict rules isn’t an end in itself, it’s a means to create a safe space for a deeper inquiry. Parents and educators need to set safe boundaries, so they can work with young people to learn how thoughtful use of media can be an enriching part of life.

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