The American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines last week on kids' media use. According to headlines across the country, the new guidelines downward revise the medical group's previous call that parents prohibit their kids from using screens until they are at least two years of age.
It is true that the new recommendations appreciate that even children younger than two can benefit from video chat, FaceTime and other such screen-based means of communicating with family or others. (13.7's own Tania Lombrozo took up this very issue here a few weeks back.)
But the more urgent message is altogether different.
Most apps, games and shows, as the lead author of the guidelines has pointed out, live in the attention economy: They are built to be exciting and to grab attention — they're all bells and whistles. Little brains don't have the attention or impulse control to cope with bells and whistles. For them, slower, quieter, less, is more.
So the AAP guidelines continue to recommend that kids younger than 18 months stay unplugged and hands on (with the exception of video chat in the company of their folks). What is new is that the guidelines now acknowledge, on the basis of new research, that there is a healthy and positive place for screen time in the lives of kids younger than two (but not younger than 18 months).
But only when two conditions are met.
First, the screen time in question has to be parent time, that is, time spent engaging ideas or activities with a caretaker who is enhancing digital content and finding ways to apply it in ongoing way through a child's day.
And, second, the digital content — like Sesame Workshop and PBS Kids — has to eschew bells and whistles that capture attention while preventing focus and learning.
As I read the guidelines, then, the real upshot is this: Spend time with your kids, engage them and engage the world with them. If you do, then the fact that you are playing with digital screens or mobile devices won't get in the way of growth and learning. The recommendation is not for pre-age-two screen time. The recommendation is that pre-age two screen time can be positive if it is anchored in meaningful, real-world relationships.
And the report leaves no doubt whatsoever about the risks of leaving your toddler alone with a digital babysitter. The educational benefit of even the most "educational" apps or programs is unproven. Moreover, there is clear evidence that low-quality reliance on digital media or television may delay learning and cognitive development — and there are associations with sleep problems and obesity.
What I find impressive about the guidelines, and the accompanying technical report, is the sensitivity to the fact that when it comes to digital technology, the world has changed so very much so very quickly. Kids live in a environment populated by digital highways and byways. How many digital devices are there in your home? How many do you use when you are with your toddler or infant? How many different devices has your kid actually made use of herself?
One of the striking recommendations of this report is that parents sit down and devise a family media plan, one that is suitable for their families and their specific needs. You can download a workshop to help you do this here.
I want to conclude on a different note. This is a scary time. I don't just mean that there are scary things going on (climate change, the refugee crisis, terrorism, etc.). But it can seem that the whole culture is caught up in a paroxysm of anxiety about almost everything. What I liked about this current report from the AAP on kids' media use is that it is written with a smart and compassionate appreciation that technology is here to stay; technology offers extraordinary benefits. Just think what our children can read and see and learn from their handheld devices! And just think of the new forms of social relationships that are open to them. But it also poses challenges. The new guidelines offer information you can use to educate your children.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe