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Switched on too early?

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By Dr Aric SigmanAssociate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Fellow of the Society of Biology, Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and author of Remotely Controlled

Dr Aric Sigman discusses the harmful effects of media viewing on young children

Children watching a television

Introduction

Nursery practitioners and parents are increasingly pressured to prepare our children for the digital world they will inhabit. It is implied that if children don’t become familiar with technology while they’re young, that they will in some way lose out later on. This is not true – even Rhesus monkeys can learn how to use new technology. The other rationale is that because children enjoy technology and are interested in it, therefore it must be good for them to have it. Just because children are interested in something does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that it is in their best interests to expose them to it until we feel it is age-appropriate. Children might be interested in busy roads, deep water, alcohol or even hand-guns – it doesn’t mean we should give them access to these things.

Medical research

There are now sound medical reasons for delaying the introduction of technology to our children. In August 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued guidelines recommending that children under the age of two should watch no screen entertainment at all, because television ‘can negatively affect early brain development’. The Australian Government is now considering a similar national policy guideline. And it is highly significant that France’s government has recently banned French channels from airing all TV shows – ‘educational’ and otherwise – aimed at children under three years of age. It has declared, ‘Television viewing hurts the development of children under three years old and poses a certain number of risks, encouraging passivity, slow language acquisition, over-excitedness, troubles with sleep and concentration as well as dependence on screens… even when it involves channels aimed specifically at them.’

Following hot on the heels of this, two major unrelated scientific review studies have concluded that television harms child development. The author of one, published in the medical journal Acta Paediatrica, didn’t mince his words: ‘Infant TV viewing (under two years) is associated with delayed language, with shortened attention spans and with delayed cognitive development. The scientific evidence of benefit is just not there and the best available evidence suggests harm.’ The US National Institutes of Health and Yale University have recently published an analysis of 173 studies over the past quarter of a century and three-quarters of all those studies have found that increased media viewing is associated with negative health outcomes for children and adolescents. All of these findings occur irrespective of the ‘educational quality’ of what a child watches.


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