Extended television-watching and computer-gazing is not harmful for young children but can only really be beneficial with the active involvement of adults, new research says.
Early years teaching is becoming increasingly computer-based, says Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith of Birkbeck, University of London. And the portability of digital media means that parents also opt for screen-based educational entertainment for their children.
In a review of existing research into the effects of screen time on very young children, Karmiloff-Smith points out that nearly half the 100 best-selling Apple apps are targeted at nursery or primary-aged children. And recent US surveys indicate that, from the age of 12 months, nursery and early years children spend on average between one and two hours in front of a screen every day.
"The main fear with screen exposure is that it will replace more so-called natural forms of creative play, book-reading and social interaction," Karmiloff-Smith says.
There has long been acrimonious debate, both in the scientific world and in the popular press, over whether screen exposure is bad for children's health. Some critics claim that too much TV will lead to an increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Others insist that it will turn children into mindless zombies.
"It is common nowadays for ... children to type better than they handwrite," Karmiloff-Smith says. "The backlash has witnessed commentators bemoaning the end of innocence, fearing that normal development will be compromised."
As a result, early years teachers are increasingly unsure how much screen-time activity they should include in the school day. In addition, they are regularly asked for their advice about how - or whether - parents should use TV and computers with children at home.
In her review, Karmiloff-Smith examines whether TV and educational computer games really are detrimental to children's learning.
She begins by tackling common criticisms of screen exposure for young children. Those who claim that children must have hands-on experience of everything are ignoring the fact that many children never see an elephant or an aeroplane in real life. "Seeing static pictures of them in books may be less informative than tracking dynamic images of them moving across a screen," she says.
Watching images on a screen can be beneficial because it involves complex cognitive tasks, Karmiloff-Smith explains. Children must translate knowledge between a two-dimensional representation and a three-dimensional object. Young children also learn to differentiate correct responses to a screen from correct responses in real life. For example, they will not react with fear to a wild animal on the screen, nor will they attempt to touch on-screen objects.
Much of the research into the effects of screen time on small children has focused on language acquisition. One study showed that children under the age of 12 months looked equally at videos with comprehensible speech and at those with backwards or fragmented speech. But by the time they reach nursery-school age, children are sensitive to linguistic distortions, showing a clear preference for comprehensible content.
"Word learning has been shown to be successfully supported by TV programmes that incorporate explicit prompting routines to encourage young viewers actually to produce words, rather than merely listen passively," Karmiloff-Smith says.
While babies tend not to repeat on-screen actions as readily as those they see in real life, children above the age of 12 months do. And research reveals that children who view a programme with an adult who points, describes and labels on-screen objects, tend to respond similarly to the programme themselves.
Such adult-child interactions, Karmiloff-Smith says, "play a critical role in ensuring that young children derive the best from screen exposure, thereby enhancing comprehension and learning".
She concludes: "Judiciously and sparingly used, TV, videos and DVDs can be as educational and enjoyable as books for young children."
WITH A VIEW TO LEARNING
It is better for teachers and parents to know how to choose the right educational television and computer programmes than to feel embarrassed and not use them at all, research suggests.
Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith, of Birkbeck, University of London, has provided a guide to managing children's screen time. While many of its points refer to screen time at home, teachers may find it useful when parents seek their advice on how - or whether - to allow children to watch TV outside school. The guide recommends that:
Televisions should never be left on in the background when children (or adults) are not watching a specific programme. This distracts children from active play. Teach them to turn the TV off at the end of a programme.
Have time set aside for TV viewing, just as there may be time set aside for reading.
Do not put TV sets in children's bedrooms. They disrupt sleep patterns and hence the sleep-based consolidation of learning.
Adults should watch any programme or film carefully themselves before allowing children to view it.
Wherever possible, participate actively in viewing alongside children. Ask questions about what is happening now and what will happen next.
Try to avoid using the television as a babysitter and leaving children alone in front of it.
Stand behind the TV and observe children while they watch. Are their eyes moving a lot, suggesting that they are actually thinking while watching the programme? Are they mouthing sounds, pointing or anticipating what will happen next? Or are they simply mesmerised, with their eyes fixated on the centre of the screen?
Karmiloff-Smith, A. "'TV is bad for children': less emotion, more science please!" in Adey, P. and Dillon, J. eds Bad Education: debunking myths in education (Open University Press, 2012).
Annette Karmiloff-Smith, professorial research fellow, Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London.