I had a parenting moment the other day I know gave me more joy than it did my nearly two-year-old son. I introduced him to the nostalgia of my own childhood—something I’ll do in various ways for years to come, I know. In most cases, not for his sake, but for mine.
However, our moment the other day was for his sake, truly.
Despite the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics that no child under the age of two be exposed to screen time, I sat with Landon in front of the TV for a Saturday morning treat—watching a cartoon together, although this week didn’t star a tomato, a cucumber, or even Mickey Mouse. Instead, I introduced him to my ol’ buddy from years ago, Mister Rogers.
And man, it was awesome! Mister Rogers was teaching us how to behave in a restaurant. He introduced us to the waitress, showed us where to place our napkin, and taught us how to order a drink. Ah, the good ol’ days. (He did this all without looking at his cell phone or taking a #selfie).
Unfortunately, that’s as far as we got. No more than five minutes in Landon looked at me and asked, “Hot Dog?”
Translation: He was bored. He wanted to watch “Hot Dog” (a.k.a. Mickey Mouse) instead. I admit I was a bit bummed. I at least wanted to revisit the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
So why did I introduce him to Mister Rogers so early?
Well, I love to study research. Forget blogs and people’s opinions. Show me the data behind why I should or shouldn’t do something, and I’ll listen. Which is why my son and I left Mickey Park and traveled to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood last Saturday. I did it for his sake.
Here’s what I mean: Though I’ve written quite extensively on this topic in the past, including blogs on the effects of technology, how parents can set reasonable limits, and what our iPhones are stealing from us, there’s more updated research revealing how screens, including iPads and iPhones, impact the brains of our developing children, especially kids under the age of seven.
The primary finding is what’s called the overstimulation hypothesis. That is, prolonged exposure to rapid image changes during a child’s critical period of brain development preconditions their mind to expect high levels of stimulation, which leads to inattention in later life.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children having attention problems because of too much idle screen time. Heaven forbid they can’t go to a restaurant as an adult without a phone as a placemat.
If you think this isn’t a problem, watch a TV episode with your kids and notice how many screen changes happen in a 20-second span. Many people claim that shows like Baby Einstein are an exception, and actually make their kids smarter. Research shows there’s nothing more to this than great marketing.
In fact, when you watch “A Day on the Farm” by Baby Einstein, you’ll average about 7 scene changes in any 20-second clip. Send your kid to school a few years later to study farm animals, and at school, it becomes boring—the lessons are too slow.
In the study I’m referring to here, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the only program to show no differences in later attention compared to kids who watched no TV. That’s because it was a show designed to expand a child’s attention by keeping the child focused on face-to-face interaction with one person. The pacing of screen changes for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is radically different from other children’s programs, including Sesame Street and Baby Einstein, both of which cater to a child’s shorter attention span by increasing screen changes.
So though your child may be mastering his A,B,C’s a bit quicker than the Jones’ kids next door, what you’re sacrificing are the higher level executive functions of your child’s developing brain—the ability to problem-solve, display behavioral control, regulate emotions, plan, negotiate, and delay gratification—all critical components for both academic and social success.
And if you’re a proponent of iPads for your children, understand that 85 percent of the apps purchased for children are just “drill and practice” apps that solicit children to simply repeat an action or recall simple facts.
As one study reveals, “These ‘consumption’ based apps [lead] to lower-level neural development [and their] excessive in-game rewarding [leads] to unrealistic expectations.”[i]
Make no mistake, there’s still no substitute for the God-given programming of you, the parent, in raising high functioning kids through one-on-one, face-to-face interaction.
Screens are not all bad, in healthy moderation. Just be smart about what, and may I add whom, you expose your children to.
Note: If you have kids under the age of 7, I highly recommend watching Dr. Dmitri Christakis’ Ted talk on this study.