That is the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics. They state that media, both foreground (active use) as well as background, have potential negative effects and no known positive effects for this age group. Therefore, their recommendation is to discourage screen use for children under the age of two.
Recently I visited the Annual conference of the International Communication Association (ICA) in Seattle. I attended a session by Victor Strasburger and Ed Donnerstein on Children and the media. In their presentation, again this advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics was stressed: No screens below the age of two. Their main reasons for this advice is that research suggests that children who use media below this age show slower cognitive development in comparison to children who are not exposed to screens. They had to admit that exposure to television designed for young children (e.g., baby Einstein) did not show any negative effects. However, it also did not show any positive effects. Therefore, they claim that this exposure time could be better spent on activities that do stimulate learning.
As for the children at older ages, Strasburger and Donnerstein presented negative effects of media exposure including violence, sex, drug use, obesity, eating disorders, (cyber)bullying. Therefore, they advise schools to teach media literacy to their students to prevent these negative effects. Among media literacy skills are the abilities to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media. To forestall negative media effects, media users need to understand complex messages we receive from the media and critically think about the messages presented. For example, media users need to be able to distinguish between health information and a commercial trying to sell health products. Otherwise, you might end up with an empty wallet but no effective cure for your health problem. In addition, when watching television, youngsters need to be aware that behavior portrayed in the media may be presented as risk-free, while this behavior in the real word is very unhealthy and far from risk-free. When they do not realize this, youngsters will probably end up mimicking the unhealthy behaviors portrayed in the media, like violence, reckless driving, drug use and so on. More relevant for young children, is the realization that characters cannot come out of the television screen and that these characters cannot hear them. Or more practically, that they cannot ‘swipe’ on a television screen. In other words, in my understanding, media literacy means that we need to recognize and learn ‘the language’ of the media.
When we see media literacy in the light of ‘learning a language’, we might find some parallels with traditional language learning. Children are geniuses in language learning. Prof. dr. Patricia Kuhl, from the Institute for Learning and Brain Science at the University of Washington, studies language development in very young babies. She found that while babies at the age of 6 months could not distinguish between various languages, in two months time these babies have learned to distinguish and show preferences for their native language. From this, it can be concluded that babies are very quick learners and use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world. This sensitive developmental period for language learning in babies between 6 and 12 month old, may also be found in the learning of media literacy. In addition, research shows that bi-lingual children show slower cognitive development. However, at the end, the child is capable of speaking two languages instead of one! The same may be true for children learning the language of the media. Exposure to screens below the age of two may lead to slower cognitive development, but in the end, these children know the language of the media and may therefore be less susceptible to negative media effects. Moreover, the rapid language learning of children stays excellent till the age of seven. Then, their ability to learn languages drops dramatically. This may also be true for media literacy. Children seem to pick up the skills to use, analyze, evaluate, and create media very quickly, while the older we get the more difficult we find it to adapt to a new medium. Therefore, it might be important to learn the language of the media at a young age to exploit this excellent learning capability and become media literate individuals.
In sum, children may be extremely sensitive for learning ‘the language of the media’ and become media literate. As for traditional language learning, this sensitive developmental stage may be in children’s first years. Yes, becoming media literate at such young age may lead to cognitive delay, but in the end, the child may be more capable of recognizing and speaking the language of the media and be therefore less susceptible to negative media effects. Given the medialization of our world, which is expected to increase even further in the coming decades, becoming media literate is of critical importance to stay healthy in a digital environment. In line with young childrens’ unique capabilities of language learning, young children may also have the unique skills to acquire the language of the media. Therefore, against the advice of the American Academy Pediatrics, media exposure at a very young age might be paramount to become a media literate individual.
Xanthe S. Plaisier is a PhD candidate at the department of Communication Science. Her research focuses on adolescents’ use of immoral, risky, and antisocial media content as a function of their developmental stage.