The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement on October 17 urging parents to keep their toddlers as screen-free as possible. The statement was released during the group’s annual convention in Boston. In many ways, the warning reinstates the group’s announcement in 1999 that suggested parents all but outlaw TV time for their toddlers. At the time of the original statement, there wasn’t much research into the effects of television use in young children. The AAP now believes the results of years of study have allowed them to stand even more solidly behind their convictions.

In the words of Dr. Brown, a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media, “The concerns raised in the original policy statement are even more relevant now, which led us to develop a more comprehensive piece of guidance around this age group.” The AAP reported the following “key findings” in a press release on Tuesday:

  • Many video programs for infants and toddlers are marketed as “educational,” yet evidence does not support this. Quality programs are educational for children only if they understand the content and context of the video. Studies consistently find that children over 2 typically have this understanding.
  • Unstructured play time is more valuable for the developing brain than electronic media. Children learn to think creatively, problem solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills at early ages through unstructured, unplugged play. Free play also teaches them how to entertain themselves.
  • Young children learn best from—and need—interaction with humans, not screens.
  • Parents who watch TV or videos with their child may add to the child’s understanding, but children learn more from live presentations than from televised ones.  When parents are watching their own programs, this is “background media” for their children. It distracts the parent and decreases parent-child interaction. Its presence may also interfere with a young child’s learning from play and activities.
  • Television viewing around bedtime can cause poor sleep habits and irregular sleep schedules, which can adversely affect mood, behavior and learning.
  • Young children with heavy media use are at risk for delays in language development once they start school, but more research is needed as to the reasons.

Although no one seems to be refuting the fact that the organization is focusing on an important issue, the AAP’s findings, and their suggestions based on those findings, have evinced a variety of reactions. Most view the AAP’s suggestion to completely avoid screen time for children under two as unrealistic.

Writing in the New York Times, Tamar Lewin noted a report by Common Sense Media of San Francisco indicating that “children under 8 are spending more time than ever in front of screens.”

The study found that fully half of children under 8 had access to a mobile device like a smartphone, a video iPod, or an iPad or other tablet. Of course, television is still the elephant in the children’s media room, accounting for the largest share of their screen time: about half of children under 2 watch TV or DVDs on a typical day, according to the study, and those who do spend an average of almost two hours in front of the screen. Among all children under 2, the average is 53 minutes a day of television or DVDs – more than twice the 23 minutes a day the survey found children are read to. Among all children under 2, the average is 53 minutes a day of television or DVDs – more than twice the 23 minutes a day the survey found children are read to.

If screens have become such a ubiquitous part of our culture; it’s hard to think of a single space in our lives where devices like televisions, tablets, cell phones, and laptops aren’t within reach.

Farhad Manjoo expressed doubt in an outright prohibition on screen time for toddlers in a  Slate article when he said, “I’m skeptical of the blanket rule against screens. Sometimes they can’t be avoided, and letting the baby watch or play with a screen can be immensely helpful. The other night I wanted to watch the Republican presidential debate—would it have ruined my son to have let him play in the living room while the TV was on? (…) Or what about when I give my kid the iPad to play with while I take a shower—is that really so bad?”

Manjoo goes on to question the data and research that led to the AAP pronouncement. Like many studies, those used by the AAP aren’t perfect. Manjoo argues that, for many reasons, the studies should not be used as conclusive evidence that increased screen usage is to blame for issues like attention difficulties and poor curricular performance.

“This seems important: Some parents were letting their kids watch five or more hours of television a day.” Manjoo says, “It stands to reason that these weren’t great parents—so maybe it was something about their parenting skills, and not the boob tube itself, that caused these kids to develop problems.”

In addition, much research focused on children watching excessive amounts of television (say, more than five hours a day) and the issues resulting from such over-consumption are hardly applicable to a child who watches an episode of Mister Rogers every once in awhile. Similar gaps in statistical findings and real-life scenarios make Manjoo question the validity of some of the group’s conclusions.

As in most debates, it’s is likely that the truth lies somewhere in between increasingly polarized viewpoints. Should your one year old spend his every waking hour watching Law and Order marathons? Probably not, but a moderate dose of screen time is not likely to ruin his life either. What are your thoughts on the subject? How realistic are the AAP’s guidelines? Do you limit screen time for your own child? Comment and weigh in on the debate!