The time young children spend on media gradually increases over the years the Iene Miene Media study, which has been carried out annually since 2012 by the Media Literacy Network in collaboration with the Trimbos Institute and Windesheim University of Applied Sciences. This Friday, the 2023 edition showed that children between the ages of zero and six spend an average of about one hundred minutes a day on digital media, seven minutes more than last year.
Young children watch programs on television the most, often via streaming services such as Netflix and Disney+, followed by smartphones, on which they mainly watch YouTube videos and play games. The older the children, the more often they sit still. And where children sometimes spontaneously start walking or jumping in front of the television, they hardly move with tablets and telephones.
It is well known that sitting still is not good for children. In addition, ophthalmologists have known for a number of years that looking closely at a screen can cause nearsightedness. And yet it is so tempting for parents: to be able to cook in peace for a while, or to give in to that smartphone during breakfast, because then they will at least eat their sandwich before they have to go to school.
What to do? Three important tips for a healthy screen use of babies, toddlers and preschoolers:
1 Limit screen time, especially for the youngest
How sensible or, rather, unwise is it to put babies and toddlers up to two years old in front of a screen? The World Health Organization (WHO) states: no screens at all for up to one year and preferably very limited under two years. According to the Iene Miene Media survey, about one in three parents adheres to this: that proportion does not put the very youngest in front of a screen for more than fifteen minutes a day. But on the other hand, a quarter of parents allow “at least two hours a day of screens” for children under two.
The reason for that rigid WHO advice is that the little ones do not yet understand very well what the screen does, children can only follow storylines from 18 months. Babies and toddlers have difficulty translating what they see into their own lives, so simply put, it is of little use to them for their development. They learn much more from personal contact, from playing, from moving. And if you sleep as much as babies do, there won’t be any time left for all those activities.
The question remains: how harmful is it to calm down your baby or toddler with a video? “Not”, says Peter Nikken, professor of youth and media at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences and co-author of the study. “Provided you really limit it to those ten minutes.” The crux is that screen time should not be at the expense of all those healthy activities that help babies and toddlers learn more.
2 Watch and explain
Moreover, says Nikken, if a video is simple and calm and if a parent watches and explains, screens can contribute to development. For example, it is instructive if images are often repeated, or if a young child is addressed about the person by a peer. This applies to babies from nine months and toddlers up to two years old, but also to children between the ages of two and five, for whom the WHO has set a maximum of one hour per day.
Nikken: “The program Tick Tock is a good example. It’s all about colors and music – enough stimulation for the little ones, they can enjoy it.” It becomes instructive when parents name what can be seen: ‘Look, a donkey appears.’ Nikken: “This way you help a child to understand what he sees, and you can teach him to distinguish colors, for example.” For toddlers and preschoolers, who do understand storylines, it remains useful to watch as a parent. According to Nikken, children always have questions about what they see, so it makes sense to know what they are watching.
3 As a parent, limit your screen time as well
Let’s start with some reassurance: making a phone call or watching the news on your smartphone can do just as little harm as hanging out the laundry. As a parent you cannot have full attention all the time, that is normal. The only problem is that there are no guidelines for the screen time that parents should have in the presence of their children. It is known that ‘background television’ is more harmful than often thought. A child is playing quietly, the parent is looking at a screen, which also makes noise. In such a case, the child hears less of his or her own gibberish and it discourages contact with family members, writes Patti Valkenburg, professor of media, youth and society at the University of Amsterdam in her book Plugged In. How Media Attract and Affect Youth. Moreover, says Nikken, parents also talk less with each other in the presence of their offspring. And that lack of contact at home is at the expense of the child’s language development.
A version of this article also appeared in
the newspaper of March 25, 2023