A new view on screen time for children
The American Academy of Pediatrics has loosened its guidelines around screen time for children, but caution is still warranted
It is, at first glance, the expert advice harassed parents have been waiting for, the ruling that it is perfectly fine to give kids as young as one or two "screen time".
A major new study has completely overturned previous, stern warnings against allowing children under two any time at all with iPads, laptops, smartphones and TVs.
The influential American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just released a new policy statement which reverses years of gospel on the issue.
But the new advice, which has been hailed as a "pivotal moment for anyone raising or working with kids", comes with some hefty qualifications.
And the child development experts who have spent almost a decade studying the issue are at pains to say it is not a green light to plonk your kids in front of a tablet or TV and let the cartoons do the parenting.
Advice from the AAP and the 'Journal of Pediatrics' has traditionally been seen by child health and development experts, especially in the US, as the gold standard. However, many academics working with children have become increasingly frustrated with the Academy's strict rulings against any screen time at all for children aged two or under, and similarly stern warnings about limiting exposure for children up to five years of age.
Over the past decade, an increasing body of research has pointed to the benefits of carefully monitored and limited electronic media exposure for children in the 18-month and upwards range.
The latest research says children, even at very young ages, can benefit from using media when it catalyses conversation and is carefully designed for learning. In areas such as speech development, cognitive skills and social interaction, the "right" kind of media and content can have impressive benefits.
And Irish grandparents with children and grandchildren overseas will be happy to hear that "video chatting", using apps such as Facetime or Skype to allow young children to interact with distant relatives, has also been found to be very beneficial.
However, the AAP advises parents to be guided by the "Three C's" when choosing children's media - to pay attention to the content, context (how, where and duration of screen time), and the child.
It's an approach that broadly chimes with the experience and views of parenting expert Sheila O'Malley of the Practical Parenting consultancy in Dublin.
"I do a huge amount of work in the corporate sector, at the coalface with parents who are really put to the pin of the collar when it comes to time and resources," says Sheila.
"I am very much pro-parent and I understand the pressures that they can be under. But I have often observed how parents use iPads or smartphones with their kids and I do get very concerned.
"I saw on a plane recently, where a mother was interacting with a three-year-old, just playing and having fun with them. But then the iPad came out, the cartoons went on and it was like the child had been given a tranquiliser.
"I can see why parents do it. But it really does take away from that interaction which is so important. With my own kids, I remember all of the times we were in the car, singing songs, playing I spy, just chatting. And I really worry that many of today's kids are not getting that. And it's a big loss for child and parent.
"If the screen is being used as a babysitter, it is going to impact on their language skills, the social learning and the quality of the interaction between parent and child."
Sheila says modern children's programming can be frenetically paced to the point where it over-stimulates the child.
"When you compare it to children's programming of previous eras, it's just so pow-pow! An hour or two of that and you could be looking at a child who is really, really over-stimulated," she says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics now advises parents to change screen time to family time. To carefully select the content, watch with the child and interact with them as much as possible so that they are not simply passively plonked in front of a screen.
Parents with children aged 18 to 24-months-old who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and apps to watch and play with alongside their kids.
For infants, toddlers and preschoolers, the AAP recommends "no screens during meals or for one hour before bedtime".
Parents are encouraged to "test apps before the child uses them, play together, and ask the child what he or she thinks about the app".
"We wanted to tell parents not only what not to do, but also what to do," says Dr Jenny Radesky, one of the lead authors of the AAP's new guidance.
"It is too simplistic to just put rules around ages and hours of the day."
There are some rules on time. Families with children aged two to five years are advised to "limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programming".
However, the One Hour Rule can be stretched if kids are using highly interactive media such as doodling apps - or if the time includes Skype or Facetime calls to distant relatives.
For older children, apps that allow the parent and child to, for instance, explore maps, take virtual museum trips or learn through interaction about anything from dinosaurs to ocean liners, are recommended for extended screen time.
The latest guidelines do ask parents to be "educators, mentors and guides" when it comes to exploring electronic media.
But Sheila, who works with Irish parents every day, says there is another, simple step that parents can take on their own. "Just put down the smartphone," she says.
"My daughter took a coach-trip to the airport recently and she saw a man who just stood at the stop and then on the bus, with his young child, totally concentrating on checking his Facebook or Twitter or whatever.
"You see it everywhere. Parents are just so caught up in staring at their screens and it cannot be good for their children. That can be where you start, let your child see your eyes, give them your attention, put the smartphone in your pocket."
'My kids' learning and speech development have improved'
Family time: Eileen Leahy with her son Donnacha (5) and daughter Maeve (2)
Mum of two Eileen Leahy was not a big fan of screen time and apps for her kids, until her eldest, five-year-old Donnacha, recently asked about 'dodecahedrons'.
"We thought he was making up the word, we'd no idea what he was talking about," says Eileen, who lives in Clontarf in Dublin.
"But my husband sort of remembered it being something to do with shapes or maths, so we looked it up, and there it was."
Eileen and her husband Dougal soon worked out that the very precocious Donnacha had learnt the word from a popular kids 'fun with maths' series that he liked watching on TV and online.
"I've been very strict with Donnacha and then Maeve when she came along. We won't have iPads in the house. We have the TV in a separate room and we are very strict on what they can watch and the time they get.
"You are always under pressure for time, but we want to play with them as much as possible, read them books, do puzzles, that sort of thing.
"I grew up in the country, my mum was quite strict about TV and I've always thought being outside, playing, seeing the world is far, far better for kids than staring at a screen. My husband grew up in New Zealand and it was the same for him.
"But you are always a bit more relaxed when the second comes along. We've been allowing them a little more screen time and we see the benefits in terms of learning and speech development, things like pronouncing words, learning new ones, getting ideas and information that maybe they wouldn't come across just playing with us."
Eileen says they are still very careful about the amount of screen time their two little ones get. "I can see some benefits. But we won't have it on in the background, during meals. It won't be used as a distraction. If we are in the living area, we'll have the radio on.
"We know we'll be having rows about mobile phones and tablets when the kids are 10 and 12. For now, while they are this young, we want to have as much family time and interaction as possible."