Excerpts from The Impact of Screen Media On Children: A Eurovision For Parliament

Download the full 17-page report, which is based on a verbal presentation given to the Quality of Childhood Group in the European Parliament by Dr. Aric Sigman in August 2010: http://www.ecswe.org/downloads/publications/QOC-V3/Chapter-4.pdf


Quality versus Quantity
The advocates of introducing young children to screen media contend that it is the ‘quality’ of what the children see on the screen – the content – that is critical. It is suggested that provided what the young child sees on the screen is ‘educational’ and ‘age-appropriate’ that screen media is at worst harmless. Moreover, there is an implicit message that not to expose young children to this screen material puts them at a developmental and educational disadvantage. There is also the strong belief that children have to start using screen technology early or they will in some way be intimidated by it, or be less competent at using it later on in life. It is vital for them to learn to handle screen media, because this is the way they will work in the future. However, research has found that even monkeys are comfortable with, and capable of using, the same screen technology that children are exposed to (Deadwyler et al., 2008; Tulane University, 2006).


While this trend in introducing screen media in early childhood is gathering strength, a growing body of empirical evidence – most of it from beyond the domains of media studies, education and psychology is providing a very different account (Sigman, 2007, a, b; 2009; 2010). There seems to be a direct conflict between the advocates of screen media in early childhood, on the one hand, and the warnings arising from studies in paediatric medicine and biology, on the other. Specifically it is the age at which the child starts to watch screen media and the time spent during a child’s early years looking at and relating to the medium of the screen that is the central factor. It is the medium itself that should concern us, and not merely the content of young children’s experiences with screen media.


This concern is not based on an anti-technology or anti-television philosophy. The concerns are based purely on the premature use or overuse of screen media in children whose brains and bodies are not yet fully formed. And there are now sound medical reasons for delaying the introduction of screen media to children.


In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued guidelines recommending that children under the age of two watch no screen entertainment at all because television ‘can negatively affect early brain development’ (AAP, 1999). In 2006 they issued another statement on ‘TV and Toddlers’: ‘It may be tempting to put your infant or toddler in front of the television, especially to watch shows created just for children under age two … Don’t do it! These early years are crucial in a child’s development.’ (AAP, 2006) And in late 2011 they’ve gone further, ‘media – both foreground and background – have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than 2 years.’ (AAP 2011b)


The U.S Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS, 2010) has announced a ‘national 10-year health promotion and disease prevention objective’, a main aim of which is to increase the proportion of children aged 0 to 2 years who view no television or videos on an average weekday, and increase the proportion of children and adolescents aged 2 years through 12th grade [18yrs] who view television, videos, or play video games for no more than 2 hours a day.


It is highly significant that the French government has recently banned French channels from airing all TV shows – ‘educational’ and otherwise – aimed at children under three years of age. It has declared: ‘Television viewing hurts the development of children under three years old and poses a certain number of risks, encouraging passivity, slow language acquisition, over-excitedness, troubles with sleep and concentration as well as dependence on screens … even when it involves channels aimed specifically at them.’ (High Audiovisual Council, 2008) Preschool institutions in Belgium, including those just down the street from the European Parliament, now have similar warnings posted on their walls.


Discussion of screen media and children is dominated almost entirely by experts in media studies and e-learning. Yet, their expertise is not in child health, but in media and how children interact with it. We must ask ourselves how we would feel if a discussion about child diabetes, cholesterol levels and obesity in Europe was conducted by gourmet experts on how children interact with a hamburger and French fries as opposed to a scientist who studies the effect that the hamburger and French fries has on the child’s bloodstream.


Another point of confusion is a modern emphasis on differentiating between different technology devices and their related activities: watching TV, playing computer games, surfing the internet, instant messaging, smart phones or any other screen exposure. Yet, many of the effects presented (here) occur whether the child is sitting in front of a computer or a TV and occur irrespective of what they are watching.


Time spent in front of screens


Over the last twenty years social interaction (eye-to-eye contact) has gone down while eye-to-screen-contact has gone up. Just before the year 2000 life became literally virtual: people would spend more time in front of a screen than spending time interacting with other human beings.


Consumption of a high dose of screen media starts early in life. By 3 months of age 40 per cent of infants are regular viewers of television, DVDs or videos, and by the age of 2, this number increases dramatically to 90 per cent (Zimmerman et al., 2007b). In the United States as elsewhere, children under 8 are spending more time than ever in front of screens. A new study, Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America, found almost half of infants watch daily “TV or DVDs, and those who do watch spend an average of nearly two hours doing so.’ Nearly one in three infants have a TV in their bedroom. (Zero to Eight, 2011)


British children aged 11–15 spend 55 per cent of their waking lives – 53 hours a week, seven and a half hours a day – watching screen media – an increase of 40 per cent in just a decade (BMRB, 2004). Scientists are now witnessing compound effects. Children and teenagers are spending an increasing amount of time using ‘new media’ like computers, the Internet, iPod videos and video games, without cutting back on the time they spend with ‘old’ media like television. Instead, because of the amount of time they spend using more than one screen at a time, they’re managing to pack increasing amounts of media content into the same amount of time each day, and at younger and younger ages (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005; Childwise Monitor, 2008). The European range of average screen time lies between four to eight hours per day. Northern countries tend to have more hours of screen time and southern countries have less among children. One thing is clear: children have more screens available to them and they now spend more time watching TV, playing with computers and surfing the internet at younger ages.




The age at which children start viewing screens and the number of hours watched per day are increasingly linked to negative physiological changes and medical consequences. There appears to be a ‘dose-response relationship’ with more hours per day linked to greater likelihood that negative effects will appear, often years later, in the child. A general example of this is found in a study published in the American Medical Association journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine entitled Prospective Associations Between Early Childhood Television Exposure and Academic, Psychosocial, and Physical Well-being by Middle Childhood’, which examined television exposure at 29 months and 53 months and the later effects on the children when they reached the age of 10. The researchers concluded “Although we expected the impact of early TV viewing to disappear after seven and a half years of childhood, the fact that negative outcomes remained is quite daunting”. Specifically, they found that “every additional hour of TV exposure per day among toddlers corresponded to a future decrease in classroom engagement and success at math, increased victimization by classmates, a more sedentary lifestyle, higher consumption of junk food and, ultimately, higher body mass index…


Stimulating a child through strong audiovisual sensations is not the same as inspiring or educating the child. Yet screen production interests have cultivated a belief that almost from birth, so-called ‘age-appropriate, educational’ television and DVDs will provide children with cognitive / intellectual advantages, including improved language acquisition.


Studies have found that ‘When learning from videos is assessed in comparison to equivalent live presentations, there is usually substantially less learning from videos’ (Anderson and Pempek, 2005). A phenomenon called the ‘video deficit’ is being used to describe the observation that toddlers who have no trouble understanding a task demonstrated in real life often stumble when the same task is shown onscreen. They need repeated viewings to learn it. Yet the young children’s ‘educational’ television and DVD market has promoted the view that learning and experiencing via a screen rivals, and often exceeds, the process of learning via real-life interactions. The American Academy of Pediatrics has just issued a report stating: ‘children learn more from live presentations than from televised ones. … Young children learn best from—and need—interaction with humans, not screens …


Unstructured play time is more valuable for the developing brain than electronic media.’ (AAP 2011b)



End of excerpts.


We urge you to download the 17-page report so that you can avoid the harmful effects of screen time on the hormones, metabolism, body fat, cardiovascular health, life expectancy, physical fitness, sleep patterns, brain development, attention span, literacy, comprehension, mathematical ability, mental health and more, of your child.





Dr. Aric Sigman holds a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Psychology, a Master of Science degree in The Neurophysiological Basis of Behaviour, and a Ph.D. in the field of the role of attention in autonomic nervous system self-regulation. He is a Fellow of the Society of Biology, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and Recipient of the Science Council’s Chartered Scientist award. He has worked on health education campaigns with the British Department of Health and is the author of several biology papers and four books on child health and development.