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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2011, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Many of us have seen online videos that could only exist in the 21st century: Toddlers and even babies playing with computer tablets and other grown-up technology. There is even a viral video of a baby trying to understand why her parents’ magazine isn’t working like an iPad would. While these videos are cute and inspire a chuckle, do they reflect a behavior that is good for a child’s development?

Child experts do not recommend that babies and toddlers spend time in front of an electronic screen. In fact, children under 2 should be kept as “screen-free” as possible, according to new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

This recommendation is to nourish a child’s developing mind and ensure that he or she is able to develop all the necessary skills for interacting in the world.

Certainly it is a nationwide trend for children younger and younger to actively use media, whether they are watching television shows, computers or electronic devices. In a recent survey reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 90 percent of parents said their children under age 2 watch some form of electronic media—an average of one to two hours per day. By age 3, almost one-third of children have a television set in their bedroom.

The survey also finds that parents who consider educational television “very important for healthy development” are twice as likely to keep the television on all or most of the time.

“Many parents have read about educational TV shows and media designed to educate young children,” said Dr. Ken Haller, a pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “The problem with these programs is that what children really need is actual human interaction. They respond to faces, and those faces have to respond back to them.”

At such a young age, children learn best from observing and interacting with adults and other children. Through unstructured play time, children will learn to think creatively and to problem-solve. They will also develop reasoning and motor skills at early ages through this type of play and, most importantly, social skills.

Although one of the appeals of electronic media is its interactive nature, it does not offer the type of crucial human interaction that babies and toddlers need to develop.

“When babies and toddlers work with a screen, which doesn’t interact, they don’t learn in a way that makes sense to them,” Haller said. “That’s why we encourage kids to read books with their parents. While reading, parents can point to an object and when your child says the name, you can respond to them and give them reinforcement that lets them know they are learning.”

What can parents do to ensure their child is engaging in a healthy amount of electronic media? First, they should set media limits for children, keeping in mind that child experts discourage any media use for children before age 2. If parents choose to allow children in this age group to use electronic media, they should have a strategy for managing the time.

Parents should never substitute electronic screens for actual human interaction. For infants and young children, supervised independent play is more important. When parents cannot actively play with a child, there are toys—such as nesting cups—that children can play with under the parent’s supervision.

Although television may seem like a necessity, parents should avoid placing a television set in a child’s bedroom. A personal television can make it difficult to monitor a child’s usage and can lead to late-night viewing. Research has shown that watching television before bed can cause poor sleep habits, which can have a big effect on a child’s mood, behavior and learning ability.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.

 

11/3/2011