AAP’s New Screen Guidelines: Not Brain-Compatible for Toddlers

Gloria DeGaetanoScreen Technology

AAP guidelines for toddlers

The updated screen guidelines for young children, birth-age 5, recently released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are not fully in alignment with what brain science tells us is in the best interests of young children. Amending their previous caveat of no screen technology before the age of 2, the AAP shifted its recommendation to:

“For parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media, advise that they choose high-quality programming/apps and use them together with children, because this is how toddlers learn best. Letting children use media by themselves should be avoided.”

There are several significant problems with this recommendation that require clarification so parents can make a more well informed decision regarding when to introduce small screens into their children’s lives.

  1.  How do toddlers “learn best?”

It is certainly preferable when parents interact with their children while enjoying a high quality app or an educational program rather than youngsters using media on their own. Toddlers learn better that way. It is not true that “toddlers learn best” that way. In the same policy statement, the doctors acknowledge:

“Children younger than 2 years need hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop their cognitive, language, motor, and social-emotional skills. Because of their immature symbolic, memory, and attentional skills, infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they do from interactions with caregivers, and they have difficulty transferring that knowledge to their 3-dimensional experience.”

In the new policy statement the AAP also points out what is not learned through digital play:

“It is important to emphasize to parents that the higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.”

If the doctors are clear that the 3-D world is a superior environment for toddler’s optimal learning and brain development, then why allow any screen time this early?

  1. How do parents set boundaries once the small screen has been introduced at such a young age?

In the AAP’s on-line Family Media Plan for youngsters 18-24 months, it states:

“Media & digital devices are an integral part of our world today. The benefits of these devices, if used moderately & appropriately, can be great. But, research has shown that face-to-face time with family, friends & teachers, plays a pivotal & even more important role in promoting children’s learning & healthy development. Keep the face-to-face up front & don’t let it get lost behind a stream of media & tech.”

This is excellent advice for older children. In reality, the benefits of media and digital devices, even if used moderately, won’t be great for toddlers if we truly understand the brain science about how to best meet the needs of the young brain and its nervous system. And, you and I know it’s so difficult for parents to “use screens moderately.” In fact, allowing any digital use before the age of 2 makes life nightmarishly difficult for parents. That is the reality of young-brain-screen interface. Malleable new brains adjust readily to their environments. A 2-D screen experience of swiping provides immediate rewards of “I did it!” or “I can do this.” This keeps the child wanting to come back for more of these rewards. And why wouldn’t we expect this? It’s how the developing nervous/endocrine/emotional system is designed to function.

I believe it is crucially important for parents of little ones to understand:

The more the child experiences, “I can” in the 2-D world, the less “I can” and “I did it” experiences he has in the 3-D world. Now if we really think about it, the 3 D world just can’t compete with the 2-D world for immediate reliable feedback. The developing brain becomes fixated on the simpler 2-D world. The slower moving real world makes it imperative to persist to an outcome, to learn patience to persevere, to design inner language that says, “I can do this if I keep trying.” All the while the child is integrating sensory motor abilities and brain/mind/body connection—the way it is supposed to be for toddlers: Life. In 3-D.

And unfortunately, most parents do not understand this, and most policy statements, the current one included, do not help further their understanding. To use small screens successfully with toddlers requires some very important IF’s. Here are the ones I can think of (and you might be able to add a few more.)

Parents will be able to moderate their toddlers’ screen use IF:

  • They are consistently patient, undistracted, not overwhelmed, and have established their ability to gently, but firmly, set boundaries. For instance, when their youngsters are throwing temper tantrums in grocery store lines—they will resist the temptation to give their child their cell phones, knowing they won’t be able to have “interactive time” with them since they will be attending to paying the clerk for the groceries. They will be strong enough to let their child wail away and be confident enough to not feel shamed or blamed for doing this. In fact, they will feel proud that they are following the AAP’s new guidelines.
  • They read aloud to their youngsters every day/night, and only use e-books without the color-full, fast moving images that distract youngsters from the narration by engaging the low brain’s orienting response.
  • They take the time to find the “most appropriate” apps that will be best for their child’s learning, clearly understanding what is best for the age and stage of their child’s current developmental level.
  • They are willing to make sure their youngster gets much more time in the 3-D world than with the 2-D screen. This means an active investment in the two most developmentally important types of play: physical/sensory and imaginative play.
  1. Why put children at risk for attention problems, delayed language development, obesity, lack of emotional self-regulation, and increase in depression?

Allowing 18-24 month olds access to screen play puts those children at risk for a plethora of physical, cognitive, and emotional/social problems. The AAP knows this. Even in the new policy statement, compelling research is cited:

“…a recent study of 2-year-olds found that BMI increased for every hour per week of media consumed.

“Population-based studies continue to show associations between excessive television viewing in early childhood and cognitive, language, and social/emotional delays, likely secondary to decreases in parent– child interaction when the television is on and poorer family functioning in households with high media use.”

Victoria Dunckley, MD, an award-wining integrative psychiatrist, makes these telling observations in her recent book, Reset Your Child’s Brain (2015):

“…many youngsters exhibit ill-defined but disruptive symptoms that baffle clinicians, teachers, and parents alike, leading to premature or wrong diagnoses in a misguided attempt to name the problem and take action…In fact, in 2013 a controversial new diagnosis—Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, or DMDD—debuted in the long-awaited fifth edition of the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The presentation of a child with chronic irritability, poor focus, rages, meltdowns, and truly disruptive oppositional-defiant behavior has become disturbingly commonplace, and there is legitimate concern that these children are being misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder or other conditions and being prescribed antipsychotic medication. In the face of an increase in such diagnoses, psychiatrists felt it was necessary to define a new disorder that most accurately matches these children’s symptoms, despite a lack of definitive proof that these symptoms indeed represent a true, organic mental health disorder…Might DMDD really be merely a by-product of constant bombardment from electronic screen devices, causing the brains to short-circuit?” (pp.4-5)

In her outstanding book, Dr. Dunkley goes on to explain in detail what happens to children’s brains and their sensory nervous systems with over-use of screen technology. She calls this ESS—Electronic Screen Syndrome and shows parents, again in detail, what to do about it.

If you are a parent of a child who is “out of sorts” most of the time, I highly recommend you read her book and decide for yourself what actions to take. I have been helping parents with media-related issues since 1985 because of all the suffering that over-use of screens causes children and parents—that doesn’t have to be. Back then, the research was clear enough to demonstrate that over-use of screens hyper activates low brain areas and under activates cortical functioning in vulnerable brains. In other words, young children become more aggressive and/or depressed with too much media, while their higher level thinking just doesn’t get enough practice. In 1990 Dr. Jane Healy, a school psychologist and pioneer in this field, wrote Endangered Minds, Why Our Children Can’t Think and What to Do About It. It changed my life and the lives of thousands of others.

I guarantee that if you read these two books, you will enter an enlightening world about media and digital devices, empowering yourself with accurate information to consider when making important decisions about media use for your children.

  1. Allowing 18-24 month old youngsters access to screen play puts those children at risk for computer and Internet addiction.

The AAP knows this.

I and thousands of parent coaches, parent educators, and therapists working with families see moms and dads every day frustrated beyond capacity because they can’t get their tech-obsessed children interested in anything besides screen play. And we’re not just talking about teens nowadays. Recently several parents have been complaining to me about eight year-old boys whose only play experience is Minecraft. They race to finish their homework, to complete their chores, only with Minecraft on their minds. Their lives have basically shifted from a life-oriented focus to a screen-oriented focus—at age eight!

This sad state of events is not parents’ fault—not at all.

Culturally awash in screen technology, parents innocently purchase apps and video games thinking that it’s OK. After all, the AAP says it is.

No it isn’t. The fact is that the younger the child begins technology use, the more likely s/he will become addicted to it. And counter to popular belief, children who don’t start with screen technology until later say, age 3, 4, or 5, or even age 8, catch up fast and actually become savvy users of screens, able to control them in their lives since their lives do not revolve around screens. When children first establish who they are in the 3-D world, with an emerging experience base that does not revolve around screens, the screens become useful tools for them, not mindless tethers.

It is possible to have this vision for your children become reality, but the chances of it happening are much more likely if you don’t introduce screen technology until age 3 or later. (Please contact me, info@gloriadegaetano.com if you wish other resources besides Dunkley and Healy—but if you start with those, you will be in good hands!)

In Conclusion…

Given what we know for sure about how toddlers’ brains develop best, I do not think that the AAP’s “relaxed guidelines” are in the best interest of our children, and in fact, may do some of them harm. In addition, the policy statement confuses parents, giving them the go-ahead to use screen technologies with their youngsters, without helping them to fully understand what a can of worms they will unleash in doing so.

Well-intentioned parents following the AAP’s recommendations could easily find themselves with nagging, irritable, rage-filled 3 year olds, and end up wondering, how did this happen? Their pediatrician may not have any answers for them, except to diagnose their little one as having “oppositional defiance disorder,” prescribing on-going medication, while wishing the family good luck and Godspeed.

Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2016. All rights reserved.