Screen Time

How Electronic Media-From Baby Videos to Educational Software-Affects Your Young Child


By Lisa Guernsey

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As a mother, Lisa Guernsey wondered about the influence of television on her two young daughters. As a reporter, she resolved to find out. What she first encountered was tired advice, sensationalized research claims, and a rather draconian mandate from the American Academy of Pediatrics: no TV at all before the age of two. But like many parents, she wanted straight answers and realistic advice, so she kept digging: she visited infant-perception labs and child development centers around the country. She interviewed scores of parents, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and media researchers, as well as programming executives at Noggin, Disney, Nickelodeon, Sesame Workshop, and PBS. Much of what she found flies in the face of conventional wisdom and led her to conclude that new parents will be best served by focusing on &”the three C’s”: content, context, and the individual child.

< Advocating a new approach to television and DVDs, Guernsey focuses on infants to five-year-olds and goes beyond the headlines to explore what exactly is &"educational"; about educational media. She examines how play and language development are affected by background and foreground television and how to choose videos that are age-appropriate. She explains how to avoid the hype of “brain stimulation"; and focus instead on social relationships and the building blocks of language and literacy. Along the way, Guernsey highlights independent research on shows ranging from Dora the Explorer to Dragon Tales, and distills some surprising new findings in the field of child development. Into the Minds of Babes is a fascinating book that points out how little credible research exists to support the AAP’s dire recommendation. Parents, teachers, and psychologists will be relieved to learn positive approaches to using videos with young children and will be empowered to make their own informed choices.


Praise for Screen Time
"[Lisa Guernsey's] approach is a gift to parents because she encourages them to decide what the best media choices are for their particular child."
Television Quarterly
"A science journalist and mother of two, Guernsey manages to extricate straightforward information and guidelines from the morass of research, articles and debates on screen media and child brain development. Easily digestible chapters are smartly structured around 12 pervasive concerns of interviewees from all walks of life."
Publishers Weekly
"Guernsey's exploration of the world of electronic media and its positive and negative impact on young children is one we will all benefit from."
—Robert Kesten, Executive Director,
Center for SCREEN-TIME Awareness
"Written with passion and precision, humor and humility.... A calming and reassuring new resource for parents."
—Claire Green,
President, Parents' Choice Foundation
"This journey into the best research on the impact of media on young children will serve as an essential guide to all those who care about kids."
—Ellen Galinsky,
President, Families and Work Institute

To Janelle and Gillian

Foreword to the Paperback Edition
During the past fifteen years, baby media have exploded. Since the introduction of the Baby Einstein video in 1997, we've seen a variety of screen media directed to infants and toddlers, including a variety of television shows (Teletubbies and Classical Baby), entire cable channels such as Baby First TV, and computer software and applications for iPads and cell phones (such as Elmo's Monster Maker App). From their introduction, such baby media made explicit claims about wanting to provide children with educational or informational programming in an entertaining presentational style that elicits the children's attention and demonstrates to the parents that children are engaged and learning something, whether with colors, numbers, letters, or words. Also from their introduction, baby media have been controversial. In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended no screen time for babies two and younger and a limit of two hours of screen time for older children, sending American parents into a quandary about the appropriateness of baby media. Much of this activity occurred without explicit research on whether babies are learning from such baby media and whether such media have either short-or long-term influences on children's development.
Any examination of the research literature on children's use of television in its early days (such as the 1950s studies reported in Television in the Lives of Children by Wilbur Schramm, Jack Lyle, and Edwin Parker) demonstrates that people were recognizing babies and toddlers as viewers of television from the moment TV sets were introduced into American homes (but without any hand-wringing over the fact). Furthermore, young children of the 1950s were asking for their favorite programs by the time they started talking around 2 years of age and were regular viewers of television by 2.8 years. But the number of programs expressly intended for very young children was relatively few: not until the 1960s and the arrival on national TV of both Fred Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street were programs being developed to educate the very youngest in the audience.
What did accelerate in the past fifteen years is both the number of baby media outlets and the amount of time children under six are spending with media. According to the 2011 Common Sense Media study of media use by children from birth to age eight, children under two years old spend on average nearly an hour a day (fifty-three minutes) with screen media (including TV, DVDs, computers or videogames) and nearly four out of ten babies under age two watched some screen media every day. And yet, until the past half dozen or so years, there was little research documenting the influence of screen media on these very young child viewers.
Indeed, the media market coupled with parental concerns about what is appropriate for young children and the admonitions of the 1999 AAP report led to studies of young children's learning from baby videos as well as television shows babies watch. Can babies learn novel words from baby videos? At what age do very young children demonstrate attention to the formal production characteristics of videos such as camera movement? Can babies imitate behaviors they see on-screen?
It was into this mix of increasing baby media outlets and little research (but lots of opinion) that Lisa Guernsey—both a mother of young children and a journalist—set out to make sense of what we do and don't know about media use by very young children. With this volume she fairly summarizes the growing body of research, which suggests that children's learning from the baby videos currently in the marketplace has some limitations and depends on the viewing context and presence of adult guides, age appropriateness of the content, and the particular cognitive and social emotional development of the child. Lisa also explores and deciphers the research on educational media for preschoolers. Both academics and parents can find the literature reviewed here accessible and understandable. Indeed, Guernsey's book was the first and best compilation of what academics know about babies' and very young children's use of and learning from screen media as well as a report on the various parental practices when parents do let their very young children watch screen media.
This book is noteworthy in that its first edition made public how much research has been done but also how much more we need to understand about both the short-term and long-term influences of screen media on children's development. It helped spark the growth of this research literature, as is evident in this edition. And like the first edition, this edition provides parents with scientific evidence for their questions about the effects of baby media products.
Attitudes about screen media for young children are changing. Screen media are very much a part of American children's lives, and parenting in this age of media technology requires an understanding of the influence of such media on our children. This book helps advance that understanding for all parents and concerned adults.
Northwestern University
December 2011

Preface, or the Three Cs: Content, Context and Your Child
My introduction to Baby Einstein came in a moment of panic. I was a new mother with a colicky 5-week-old baby, desperate for anything that might calm her. "Try Baby Mozart," advised one of my closest friends, who had just emerged—alive—from six months of colic with her daughter. "We call it baby crack."
On went the video, opening a window onto a terrain that I never knew existed before: the world of electronic media for the very young. Since then, as my daughter has grown and her younger sister arrived, companies have produced more and more multimedia programs for the stroller set. Videos promoting cognitive growth have been designed for babies as young as 2 months old. Television shows like Teletubbies, Boohbah and Oobi target toddlers. Videos for iPods, computer software, and games for portable devices, with screens no bigger than a box of raisins, are being made for 2- and 3-year-old kids.
In 1999, at the first rumble of this media avalanche, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with some professional advice for parents. It recommended no screen time—including TV, video or computer time—for children under the age of 2. Five years later, a report in the journal Pediatrics linked children's attention problems to how much TV they watched when they were very young. Meanwhile, child-advocacy groups have continued to turn up the sirens, issuing warnings about the academic and health problems children will soon face if they are settled down in front of TV and computer screens at such an early age.
I felt caught in the middle. On one side, I was getting hit by the heavy marketing of video companies. I recognized that they were simply trying to make a buck in the baby market, but that didn't mean that I was immune to the lure of products labeled "educational." On the other side, I was inclined to trust and practice the advice of pediatricians. But raising children is not always a walk in the park, and I was becoming acutely aware of how much time and energy it takes to care for babies and toddlers. When an afternoon goes haywire, you can't exactly tell an 18-month-old to go read a book. Three-year-olds who have given up naptime demand far more attention than a weary body can give. Video programs, however, have an uncanny way of turning chaos into tranquility. And so screen time became part of the routine at our house beneath a barrage of health warnings, marketing promotions and mixed feelings. With the insertion of every DVD, I felt guilty. With every statement about the videos stimulating my children's brains, I felt I was being taken for a ride. And yet with every minute of quiet, I couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief.
My first daughter, Janelle, was born in April 2002. My second, Gillian, arrived almost two years later in March 2004. It was on a spring morning a few months after Gillian's birth, while trying to steal a couple of minutes with the newspaper, that I came across the Pediatrics study linking children's attention problems to early-age TV viewing. Gillian was strapped into a bouncy chair at the time, facing the TV, while her 25-month-old sister watched Playhouse Disney. I was both worried and fascinated. I wanted details.
I had spent ten years reporting on how the Internet and computer technology had changed the lives of school-aged children, college students and adults. Now, as I experienced parenthood, questions about technology's impact seemed more real and more complicated, especially regarding the very young. Babies communicate through little more than smiles and cries. How could anyone know what was going on in their heads as they watched and listened to these videos? What were they absorbing? Was it making any sense in the least? Was it doing harm?
I did some interviews, read some journal articles, and wrote a story about toddlers and television for the Washington Post in November of 2004. I thought that was the end of it. But it was only the beginning. Parents emailed me in droves, pressing the point about how difficult it was to avoid TV and still balance the realities of daily life with young children, especially when parents used television to stay in touch with the world and enjoyed watching programs with their kids. There was much more to say and, as I soon learned, much more research to discover.
What started as a couple of additional interviews became a two-year obsession. I found myself on a quest to learn everything I could about screen media and children under the age of 5. I talked with language-acquisition experts and developmental psychologists, visiting their laboratories and hounding them with email questions. I interviewed cognitive scientists, educational psychologists, communication scholars and social workers. I met with the producers of children's videos and designers of computer software for kids. I took notes on how my own kids responded to what they saw on screen. I watched more children's TV than my children did. I knew I had lost all semblance of normalcy when I sent my daughters and our babysitter out to the playground so that I could watch a couple hours of Nick Jr. Instead of setting up play dates, I was scheduling viewings of BabyFirstTV on my friend's satellite network when my children were in preschool.
I also talked to as many parents as I could, in their homes, on the phone and via email. Their questions were what kept me going. Many of them knew about the Pediatrics study and the AAP recommendation. "We all know that the AAP says it is bad," said the father of a 9-month-old girl in Washington DC. "But help us understand why. And how certain is the research on that question? What effect does screen time really have on the brain?"
Children under age 4 are spending an average of 1 hour and 25 minutes in front of a screen each day, according to a survey conducted in 2005 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.1 Should we be alarmed or encouraged by that number? It is hard to know, since it is not even clear whether this is a dramatic increase over times past. Historical comparisons are nearly impossible to make, given that very few surveys from previous decades contained questions about television use around infants and toddlers, and most of those that did never asked parents to differentiate between actually putting a child in front of the TV to watch a program or having the child simply present in a room where a television set was on. A set of national data from the 1990s, for example, showed that children aged 1½ watched more than two hours of TV a day—a higher amount of screen time than what parents report today.2
The more I learned, the less use I found for focusing so intently on the quantity of screen time. Instead, I started to see three channels of inquiry that shed light on what screen time really means to a child's development. I call them the three Cs: "content," "context" and "your child." The studies on how children respond to content led me to ask: What exactly are our daughters watching? Can they make sense of it? Will they try to imitate what happens on screen? Could they learn from it? Are they learning what we think they are learning?
The studies that delved into context made me wonder: What would our children be doing if they weren't watching a video? Where are they watching? Is an adult helping them figure out what they see? Are they really watching, or is the TV background noise? How does the time our child spends with media compare to the time she spends on other activities? Is she getting enough quiet time for pretend play?
And then there was the recognition that every child is different, leading me to ask: Is this appropriate for this particular daughter's age, her stage of development, or her temperament? How much stimulation can she take? What scares her? What types of media experiences trigger the most curious questions, the most playful reenactments, the most engagement, the most joy?
With the three Cs in mind, I organized this book around twelve of the most frequently asked questions that I either heard from parents or grappled with myself over the past two years. My aim was to keep answers rooted in research. At the outset, some people warned me that I would have little to go on, since media research on very young children is hard to come by. The research on infants is, indeed, in its infancy. But there are many fascinating studies that have started the research ball rolling, along with a flurry of new science on cognitive development, including how children see, hear, learn language and play. These studies gave me a framework for thinking about how children respond to media, not to mention new lenses of understanding through which I could see how to help my own kids.
I can't promise that parents will find answers to all of their media questions in this book. Cognitive scientists and developmental psychologists are only starting to uncover the holes in their understanding of how very young children are affected by media. Debates are already raging on how to interpret what we know so far. New experiments are underway this year, and scientists are seeking the funding to embark on national, large-scale studies. In short, easy answers are hard to come by. But what I hope this book can offer are some shafts of light, some helpful glimpses into the research on media and the minds of babes.
Today, as I read over the Washington Post story I wrote more than two years ago, I feel like a different person. While writing that story, with just a few months of research behind me, my focus was on the hype about harm, and my guilt was palpable. Today, after getting a much fuller picture of when and how children can learn from video, I can make better choices. Understanding the major caveats that come with reports on the risks of TV, I can relax. I feel a greater sense of confidence and control about how to use and enjoy screen media around my kids. I hope that, armed with a greater awareness of how children respond to and are affected by what they watch, you will, too.


1 These numbers are from a phone interview with Victoria Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation. The numbers published on page 9 of the 2006 report, "The Media Family," break out the statistics in smaller age groups: the average amount of screen time per day used by children 0 to 1 year old is 49 minutes, and the average for children 2 to 3 years old is 1 hour, 51 minutes. When you subtract the survey participants who said that their children had no screen time at all, the numbers rise to 1 hour and 20 minutes for children age 0 to 1, 2 hours and 7 minutes for children age 2 to 3, and 1 hour and 51 minutes for the combination of those two groups (children age 0 to 3).
2 Anderson and Pempek, 2005, pp. 506–508.

Chapter One
What Exactly Is This Video Doing to My Baby's Brain?
In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) decided to take a stand on how much time children should spend in front of TVs, computers and videogames. The academy's public education committee released a report with many conclusions, but the one many newspapers reported as a front-page story was the suggestion that children younger than 2 years of age should not have any screen time at all. None. Nada. Zilch.
"Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years," the recommendation said. "Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers (e.g., child care providers) for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional and cognitive skills. Therefore exposing such young children to television programs should be discouraged."1
You might think that statement would close the book on the issue. After all, when doctors tell us that our kids should take antibiotics, get vaccinated or see a specialist, the overwhelming majority of us comply. But in this case, parents seemed to wave away the recommendation, or not even know about it. In 2004, when I first became aware of the AAP's edict, conversations with parents on the playground and in playgroups led me to believe that it was having little effect. Even my children's pediatricians seemed less than inclined to push the recommendation—the waiting room featured a television set that was usually showing a Disney movie. Later data showed that my peer group was not the only one ignoring the advice; a survey conducted nationwide in 2005 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that more than 60 percent of parents allow their children, ages 6 to 23 months, to be exposed to some TV or video media each day.2
I was one of them. My first daughter, Janelle, was born in April 2002, and a month later I was positioning her in front of the TV screen. She was a colicky baby. If she wasn't sleeping, she was usually fussing or crying. My husband and I tried everything—car trips, stroller rides, swaddling, massages, white noise, lullabies, pacifiers. I held her and rocked her for hours upon hours. Worried that there was something in my breast milk, I changed my diet. Our pediatrician wondered if she was suffering from acid reflux and prescribed Zantac. Little worked, and I was distraught. For a few months there were only two things that were guaranteed to provide fifteen minutes of calm. One was techno music by the pop singer Moby, cranked up to full volume on the stereo. The other was the Baby Einstein video called Baby Mozart. The video delivered an on-screen montage of toys and mobiles set against a white or black background. Janelle would stop fussing and turn her head to the screen. It was as if a switch had been turned off, halting the crying. A friend called the video "baby crack," and now I knew why.
This was before I learned about the AAP's no-TV recommendation, but even if I had known about it back then, I'm not sure it would have made a difference. All I cared about was that my baby seemed less unhappy. I wasn't going to question it. By the time Janelle was 6 months old, she had shaken the colic, and we were finally experiencing the joys of a happy child. With the benefit of hindsight and experience, I now think Janelle was experiencing acid reflux and digestion problems while also picking up on my own anxiety. But during those difficult six months, I was frankly too exhausted to understand that, let alone wonder what the TV might be doing to her.
Three years later, in April 2005, I attended the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Atlanta. The meeting draws child-development specialists from around the world, taking over two hotels for four days. It was there that I discovered just how much debate surrounds the AAP's advice against screen time. Whenever it was mentioned, some attendees would nod in agreement, while others would shake their heads. During one session, within a few minutes of a presenter concluding that the rule was "well taken," another stood up to declare that she disagreed with it.3 On both sides, panelists admitted that there was very little evidence of harm or benefit to screen time.
Scientists at other times and places have also questioned whether the AAP's recommendation was a smart move. Why draw such a hard line, they ask? Why put parents in a bind of guilt when so little is known? One evening after participating in a journalism conference about child development, I cornered Jack Shonkoff, the chair of a committee at the National Academies of Science that was charged with examining research on early child development. I asked him what he thought of the rule. "Shame on them," he said, shaking his head. To jump the gun by telling parents not to expose their babies to TV of any kind, he suggested, seemed to scare parents more than help them.
The AAP has been stunned by the criticism. "They've come back at us tooth and nail," said Donald Shifrin, one of the physicians who served on the AAP's media committee. "We thought it was a fairly benign thing to suggest." The recommendation, he explained, was designed with the interests of children in mind, children so young they can't speak for themselves. Decades of research had shown that what babies need most is attentive, loving care from their parents, and no research had ever pointed to any advantage in exposing children under age 2 to a television set. With little else to go on, the AAP decided to take a "caveat emptor" position, sounding a warning about electronic media that it hoped would cause parents to think harder about what, when and why they were watching with their young kids.
"We thought it was fairly safe," Shifrin continued. "We thought that was the end of the story. We figured, we don't have any research to show this, but who is going to argue with this recommendation? Well, it hit the front page of the New York Times and it was an unbelievable lightning rod. And we were like, are we missing something here? Explain this to me: You actually want youngsters in front of the television?"
Once my children were old enough to start crawling and toddling around the house, I couldn't help but be amazed at the way they were effortlessly absorbing a huge amount of information in what felt like the blink of an eye. Their ability to understand words spoken to and around them made me wonder about the impact of the flash of pictures and sounds from a video screen. What kind of wiring and rewiring was happening inside their little heads?
Scientists admit that they are in the dark about much regarding brain development. The media's impact on the developing brain is not easy to measure—partly because much of the science on the brain is still so new. Consider this apology in From Neurons to Neighborhoods, a landmark book from 2000 about the science of early childhood development: "There is one very important context for early development that is not addressed in this report, namely the media.... We are only beginning to understand the repercussions of these trends for family life and child well-being. Our neglect of this topic is not a signal of any lack of concern; this is clearly an issue that warrants substantial attention."4 Not only is the science itself in its infancy, but media that is designed for babies has only truly arrived in the past decade. Scientists say they have not had enough time to see the long-term effects of these new products. The first Baby Einstein video came out in 1997, so most of the babies exposed to the DVDs have not even graduated from elementary school. And while the evening news, soap operas and sitcoms have been part of family routines for decades, increases in the amount and variety of media available to households have led child-development experts to raise alarms. Only in the last few years have scientists started to lobby aggressively for the funding to do large scientific studies of the media's effect on very young children.
But a good deal has come to light recently about brain development in young children generally. In the past decade, new research has persuaded parents, educators and politicians that the preschool years are very important for healthy brain development. An oft-quoted statistic is that 90 percent of a child's brain is formed before age 5.5 Cities and states across the country are calling for better post-natal care and more access to preschools so that children of all walks of life can reap the benefits of healthy brain growth—and the social, emotional and language development that goes with it.


On Sale
Mar 20, 2012
Page Count
320 pages
Basic Books

Lisa Guernsey

About the Author

Lisa Guernsey is an education, science, and technology writer who has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chronicle of Higher Education. A former reporter on technology and education for the New York Times, she lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and two children.

Learn more about this author