Keep a Healthy Diet: Balancing Children’s Media Use in the Modern World

Illustration by Nancy Yang

Illustration by Nancy Yang

The transformation from traditional media to new media has brought forth a significant change in children’s lives – children today are growing up immersed in digital media. New media, consisting of the internet, video games, social media and the like, enables sharing, comments and discussion. It also primarily relies on digital devices like smart phones and tablets. According to Common Sense Media’s research among families with 0- to 8-year-olds, 8 percent had an iPad or similar tablet device in 2011, while in 2013, the figure went up to 40 percent. In 2011, 38 percent of the children had used mobile devices for some type of media activity, while in 2013, 76 percent did. Looking at this data, it is reasonable to assume that the figure has risen in the past three years and is very likely to keep growing. In the wake of the dramatic changes, the nation’s largest group of pediatricians updated their suggestions on children’s media use.

On October 21st, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced the new policy recommendations regarding children’s use of digital media. One highlight this year is the introduction of the Family Media Use Plan, an online planning tool with which parents can individualize their digital media use plan for children and adolescents. The planning tool guides families and children to a “healthy media diet” with advice given by pediatricians, but also possesses flexibility to include specific needs and values of each family. Two major functions are included on the webpage. In ‘Create Your Family Media Plan’, parents can follow the instructions and check the items that apply to their children and family. These items help to set boundaries for kids of what can and cannot be done in terms of using digital media. The page can eventually be printed out and posted at home for reference at any time. With the ‘Media Time Calculator’, which includes suggested sleeping time for kids of different ages, parents can design the time distribution for kids’ activities in a one-day setting.

Creating a Family Media Plan encourages parents to increase their role in monitoring their children’s media choices. Yet the plan should not be created solely under the will of parents. As the AAP has pointed out, parents are encouraged to “select and view media with their children and adolescents, and talk about safe and respectful behavior online and offline,” emphasizing children’s participation in the decision-making.

The AAP’s release of new recommendations is more than a guidance for families in particular, but also a call for the public to reconsider the impact of digital media on children’s health development. The last time the AAP updated its suggestions was in 2013, when its statements, restricting “total entertainment screen time” for older children and “discouraging” screens for kids under two years of age, were subject to speculation. Is it indeed better to just eliminate digital media use outright? As technology has been growing and expanding unprecedentedly fast, sometimes it’s even hard to function without Facetime or Skype to connect with people far away or without a computer to work on school assignments. Perri Klass, M.D, also a fellow in the AAP, wrote in a blog post for The New York Times to clarify what exactly pediatricians are trying to suggest in the statements, saying that “[they] advise no screens for children under 2 because there’s no evidence of benefit, and a lot of concern about harm; [and] because we worry about what screen time may be replacing in the lives of young children, who need direct human interaction to learn and develop.”

Aware of the inevitable occurrence of digital media in our life, Dr. Ari Brown, chairman of AAP’s group investigating media use and children, said in an interview with CNN, “We have to approach the world as it is and figure out ways to make it work.” Two years after the publication of 2013 media use recommendations, Brown published an article titled “Beyond Turn It Off: How to advise families on media use,” gearing away from complete ban from media use for children at a certain age, but to a reasonable amount of usage under the advice from  pediatricians.

This year, AAP policy recommendations have been relaxed, as video chatting for children under 18 months is now allowed, and 18- to 24-months-olds can be exposed to appropriate and high-quality digital media. The documents also acknowledged  the benefits of using digital media. For example, for 3- to 5-years-olds, “well-designed television programs, such as Sesame Street, can improve cognitive, literacy, and social outcome,” and for teenagers, digital media helps them gain new ideas and knowledge and acquire social contact and support.

Parents should still be fully aware of negative effects, some of which are already well documented, that unregulated media use can generate. For children of preschool years, the risks can be obesity, sleep quality decline and cognitive, language, social, and emotional delays due to excessive media exposure. For adolescents, on the other hand, the risks can include compromised privacy and cyberbullying.

As technology advances, digital media is becoming more relevant and influencing people at a much younger age. It’s always been, and, with growing concern, continues to be an essential responsibility for families to find a balance of digital media use for children.




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