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Media Exposure During Early Development




As technology advances, we are exposed to media more than ever before. Such exposure has advantages and disadvantages: We can zoom with our elderly parents when we are unable to physically visit, but we can also get overwhelmed and distracted from media over-use. Like everything else in life – balance is the key. This is especially true for children: the first 5 years of life are critical for brain development. Making informed decisions about children’s exposure to media means that we can harness the potential of technology to enhance learning and development, without compromising real-life communication. So what does science have to say about this? And what do scientists recommend regarding media exposure?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), families are advised to have a media plan that revolves around the 3 C’s: Child, Content, Context.

Child: Media exposure should suit your own child's needs and their age. Is the content suitable for her interests? Is she in the right mood?

Content: Should be of high educational and social quality, with relevance to the child's life.

Context: Parents should be involved in their young children's media exposure. Children learn more from media exposure when they are accompanied by an adult.

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Parents should be involved in their young children's media exposure. A shared experience of watching age-appropriate, educational programs can be beneficial when the parent encourages rich verbal interaction relating to the content, and is responsive and engaged throughout the experience. 

  • Children under the age of 5 learn more easily from real-life interactions than they do from screens. They understand instructions better when these are given in person, and transfer knowledge to new situations better when it is experienced in real life than when it is seen on a screen.

  • Interactive touchscreens impose demands on attention, and the complexity of operation may hinder learning. Children can still learn important skills from them, but the content becomes less central.

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Media content should be of high educational and social quality and should be relevant to the child’s life. It should allow her to link new information to already familiar real-life experiences. 

  • Children learn better from stories, so content should have an engaging story line.

  • Children appreciate repetition: They prefer learning from familiar characters and watching the same content again and again. With parental guidance, they can discover something new every time.

  • Good, educational video content should depict warm adult-child interactions, since this is one of the most important aspects of children’s lives at this age.

  • Children are more likely to have a meaningful learning experience when they are exposed to media that encourages them to be actively involved, e.g. by asking them questions and allowing time to respond.

  • Well-designed educational programs, such as Sesame Street, can help improve cognitive, social, and literacy outcomes for children 3 to 5 years of age, especially in families with low resources. Apps developed based on Sesame Street have also been shown to be effective in teaching literacy skills to preschoolers.

  • Digital books (eBooks) for children often come with interactive enhancements that decrease children’s comprehension of the story and reduce dialogic reading. Parents should interact with their child during eBook reading the same way they do during print books.  

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Background TV

  • Background TV decreases the duration, quality, and complexity of play, as well as the quality of parent-child interactions. Parents are slower to respond to their children and are more passive during interactions.

  • Background TV distracts children from focusing on exploration and play.

  • A lot of exposure to background TV seems to have a negative effect on cognitive development, language development, and executive functions, like focusing attention and planning ahead.

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General Recommendations

  • Create “unplugged” spaces and times at home where no media use is allowed: mealtimes, in the bedroom, and so on. 

  • Avoid using media as the only way to calm down your child

  • Avoid using media as part of the bedtime routine, and limit it in the hour or two before bedtime.

For children under the age of 2 years:

  • You can expose your child to high quality media content, but adult interaction with the child during media exposure is crucial

  • Excessive use of digital media is harmful


For children between 2 and 5 years: 

  • No more than one hour per day 

  • Prosocial and educational content

  • Parents should avoid solo media viewing and should interact with their children in “joint media engagement” - to help them understand what they see, and apply what they learn to the world around them.

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TV exposure and sleep

The amount of TV exposure per day is associated with sleep disturbances. The amount of TV viewing in general, and especially before bedtime, is strongly associated with sleep problems like resistance to bedtime, later bedtimes, anxiety around sleep, and less sleep overall. This seems related to the blue light that is emitted from computer monitors, flatscreen televisions, tablets, and smartphones. The light from electronic devices has similar features as light coming from the sun, which tricks our bodies to think it is daylight and that we should not be sleeping. Exposure to blue light at bedtime can impact the regulation of circadian rhythms, making it harder to fall asleep and negatively impacting the quality of sleep. 

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AAP Council on communications and Media (2016). Media and Young Minds. Pediatrics, 138(5), e20162591.

Barr, R. (2019). Growing up in the digital age: early learning and family media ecology. Current directions in psychological science, 28(4), 341-346.

Barr, R., McClure, E., & Parlakian, R. (2018). What the research says about the impact of media on children aged 0-3 years old. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.

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