Pediatricians backpedalling on kids’ media use?

backpedal

How much is the American Academy of Pediatrics retreating from its guidelines on media use in children? We’ll find out when the guidelines are in fact changed.

Is the American Academy of Pediatrics changing its recommendations to parents about children’s media use? Not really. Well, yes, in a way. But hard to say. It depends on what you think constitutes a recommendation.

As recently as 2013, the Academy’s official policy on media use discouraged any screen exposure for children under age 2 and recommended less than two hours of screen entertainment after that.

But in a piece in the October 2015 AAP News, after acknowledging that this advice already appears seriously out of step with today’s media environment, the Academy announced it intends to update its guidelines. No date for the update was provided.

Then, in the same article, the Academy proceeded to offer some advice for parents about children and media use, directing parents as follows:

“Play a video game with your kids. Your perspective influences how your children understand their media experience. For infants and toddlers, co-viewing is essential. [emphasis added]

So, what is going on here? This is kind of murky. Despite some headlines to the contrary, the Academy of Pediatrics does not have a new policy on children’s media use. Instead, concerned about its reputation and trying to stay relevant, the Academy has published a dozen so-called “key messages” regarding media use “to inform and empower families.” Messages, not guidelines.

Key Messages

The key messages are mostly commonsense things like using media alongside your child, setting (unspecified) use limits, creating tech-free zones at home, etc. The messages are decidedly laid-back. Apart from the acknowledgment that “like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects,” the only potential negatives mentioned are sexting, posting self-harm images, and limited participation in other activities.

For the record, I strongly disagree with one of the messages: “The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media.” No, no, no. This assertion runs counter to plenty of research on adverse neurological effects of screens. Platform matters: big screens, flashy images, and extended exposure all increase the risk of seizures and other manifestations of nervous system overload!

Predictably, this month’s key messages are being hailed in some quarters as validation of the safety of electronic media and repudiation of concerns about such safety. For example, in a Forbes piece with the misleading title “The American Academy of Pediatrics Just Changed Their Guidelines on Kids and Screen Time,” Jordan Shapiro writes, “It is about time…the AAP guidelines seemed like they were the result of familiar technophobic paranoia that always accompanies new technologies.” He cites his own words from a previous post:

“At this point, worrying about exposure to screens is like worrying about exposure to agriculture, indoor plumbing, the written word, or automobiles. For better or worse, the transition to screen based digital information technologies has already happened and now resistance is futile.”

It’s easy for Shapiro and others to be dismissive of any health concerns related to media, when the American Academy of Pediatrics’ “key messages” fail to include reminders that there still are health issues to be concerned about. Issuing these bland recommendations may do more harm than good by creating the impression for parents there’s nothing really serious to worry about.

Not So Fast…

The AAP’s key messages around media use resulted from an invitation-only symposium of researchers held in May. An article reporting on the proceedings of that symposium shows that—to their credit—the presenters in fact voiced concerns in a number of areas and called for more investigation of:

  • Problematic/addictive media use that is often associated with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety
  • The relationship between media violence and aggressive/violent behavior
  • The adverse effects of screen media on sleep
  • The need for cultural diversity to be reflected in digital media

In addition, researchers:

  • “urged the AAP to not shy away from unpopular recommendations and to formulate policy guided by the best available research”
  • Noted that “one size doesn’t fit all with respect to digital interactions…the diversity of youth, families, and communities will influence resilience factors and vulnerabilities”

Unfortunately, few families are likely to know about these concerns, because very few will read the article summarizing the symposium’s presentations and recommendations. They’ll just hear the key messages and relax about it all.

Looking Ahead

One can hope that the next round of formal media use guidelines will thoughtfully incorporate these and other health issues related to digital media use by young people. The account of the proceedings suggests that the guidelines themselves will be more nuanced than the so-called key messages.

In particular I would like to see media guidelines for kids with mood disorders, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders (ASD), whose brain physiology leaves them more vulnerable to adverse effects. Given government estimates that 13 to 20 percent of children ages 3 – 17 have a diagnosable mental health disorder, these children’s needs should figure prominently in any policy recommendations by the AAP.

“The mission of the American Academy of Pediatrics is to attain optimal physical, mental, and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents and young adults.” — from AAP Facts



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