Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The AAP Scolds Us -- Again

The American Academy of Pediatrics released an updated policy statement this week on media use in children under 2, and no surprise, they continue to "discourage" it.  This, despite their acknowledgement that "no longitudinal study has determined the long-term effects of media use" in this age group.  (Read my earlier post on the supposed harms of baby videos.)  I read the statement carefully, and it is, shall we say, a quixotic document.  Here's one helpful tidbit on how to watch a toddler without resorting to television: "Simply having a young child play with nesting cups on the kitchen floor while a parent prepares dinner is useful playtime."

The last time I tried that with JoJo, he pulled a bottle of beer out of the minifridge and smashed it on the floor.  So even if T.V. is decreasing the number of folds in his brain, at least I don't have to worry about an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba ending in a trip to the E.R.  Sometimes I think that the AAP just needs to get off its high horse and live the life of a real parent.

Speaking of high horses, some years ago, my 3-year-old son ran up to me as I walked through the front door and gabbled, "Mommy Mommy!  Daddy was watching this T.V. show and a man was in bed and the man looked at his hand and his hand was wet and his hand was covered in blood and he looked up and there was a HORSE'S HEAD!"  I rounded on Rick, "You let J.J. watch The Godfather?!"  He  shrugged and said, "I didn't know he was paying attention."

No more Mafia movies for my kids.

Just adorable, knitted horses' heads.

That, my readers, is an example of background television, and the AAP statement devoted a special section to this form of media exposure.  Foreground television, such as Baby Einstein, is designed with children in mind.  Background T.V. is not designed for kids, but they might be exposed to it for many more hours than foreground T.V.  The question is whether background T.V. affects child development in any way.  The AAP highlighted two studies suggesting negative outcomes, so let's take a close look at these.

In one study, investigators looked at whether the game show Jeopardy affected the solitary play behavior of 1- to 3- year olds.  (I guess the Netflix queue for Godfather was too long.*)  As expected, when the T.V. was on, the toddlers didn't pay much attention to it, spending only 5% of their time with their eyes on the screen.  Correspondingly, the amount of play decreased by 5% with the T.V. on.  The authors made much of the fact that although the quantity of play didn't decrease substantially, play was interrupted more frequently, with play episodes lasting about 30 seconds less with the T.V. on.  They also noticed that "focused" play episodes (defined among other things as the child having a "serious facial expression with furrowed brow") were also shorter -- by 5 seconds.

A similar study, performed by the same group, looked at the influence of background T.V. on parent-child interactions.  When the T.V. was on, parents interacted less with their kids, and the quality of their interactions suffered, with more absent-minded behaviors, such as grooming, and less imaginative play.  Finally, having the T.V. on also resulted in parents responding less to their toddlers' bids for attention.  I always knew my kids tune me out when the T.V. is on, but I guess I'm doing the same to them.

So what's the take home message about background T.V. in young children?  From a purely anecdotal point of view, I wouldn't recommend watching anything with Al Pacino in it while your kids are still awake.  From the evidence-based standpoint, the research is scant but generally shows negative short-term effects of uncertain importance.  How much T.V. is too much? Thirty-nine percent of parents say that the T.V. is on "constantly" in their household.  What the heck, I'm willing to go out on a limb** and say that's too much. 

*Although probably not anymore.  R.I.P., Quickster.  Yours was a short, sad, badly named life.
**I was going to write "stick out my neck," but I've already gone overboard with the decapitation allusions.  I don't want to beat a dead horse. 


  1. Isn't the AAP trying to help us, not scold us? Even if it does make parenting harder?

  2. I'm sure they are. But when the AAP releases strong statements based on shaky evidence, it impacts their credibility and dilutes their truly useful policy statements, such as the ones on vaccines.