When it comes to media, parents all want to know: How much is too much for my child?
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician, professor and father of two, has spent a lot of time thinking about the effects of media on young children. Christakis tells NPR's Arun Rath that not all TV is bad.
Some children's programs are educational and engaging, he says. But if a TV show is overstimulating, it can lead to developmental problems.
"The medium can be too fast, it's surreally paced," he says, "and that can over-stimulate and ultimately damage young brains."
Some of the evidence for this over-stimulation effect comes from studying mice.
"It's funny, there's only so much you can do with live infants," Christakis says. "So we've developed a mouse model of over-stimulation."
Using a kind of 'mouse TV' in the lab, researchers have found that mice that watch a lot of television early in their development have problems later in life. They are hyperactive and take lots of risks that normal mice don't — for instance, sitting unprotected in an open field, which is a big mistake for a small animal with lots of natural predators.
Enter The iPad
The question of how much screen time is good for kids has only gotten more complicated with the arrival of interactive devices like smartphones and tablets, Christakis says.
"We have to take a step back and remind ourselves that iPads are only 4 years old. And most of us can't even conceive of a world that existed before iPads; they feel like they've been here forever."
Because tablet technology is so new, pediatric researchers don't have a lot of data on how touchscreen devices affect children.
"Unfortunately, the pace of research is much, much slower than the pace of technological advances," Christakis says.
But pediatricians are looking closely at interactive media's effect on children. Relying on admittedly limited evidence and a strong theoretical framework, Christakis is comfortable making a recommendation to parents.
"Judicious use of these touchscreen technologies is fine and may even be beneficial," he says.
"One thing children of all ages never say or never even think when they interact with passive media is, 'I did it,'" he says. "Because of course, you don't do anything when you watch a screen. But you do do things when you interact with a touchscreen device."
This kind of interactive play is essential to learning and vital for brain development, he says.
All Things In Moderation
Of course all screen time, interactive or not, comes at the expense of some other activity, whether it's playing with other children or spending time with a parent.
With tablet technology, screen time doesn't necessarily mean time spent alone. Why not integrate the devices into family time?
"There's no reason whatsoever that a caregiver can't use an app with their child," he says. "It's a great opportunity for what we call 'joint attention' — the interactions between a child and a caregiver, the back-and-forth, which is critical not just to language development, but brain development."
Sound familiar? It should. This, says Christakis, isn't much different from sitting down and reading a book with your child.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Welcome to the Kids Table. Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we've created a place to sit down and talk about, well, kids and everything to do with being a parent. And it's impossible to be a parent today without managing your kids' media consumption. Believe me, that is not easy. And it seems there's a new device every month.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has guidelines about how much TV time is too much, which is great, but so last century. Parents now, we're worried about the iPad. Are all those apps good for little brains? Dr. Dimitri Christakis is a pediatrician, and he spent a lot of time researching kids and media. He says the thing to look out for is how your kids are interacting with the device.
DIMITRI CHRISTAKIS: One thing that children of all ages never say or never even think when they interact with passive media is: I did it, because, of course, you don't do anything when you watch a screen. But you do do things when you interact with a touch-screen device. And children of all ages, but especially young children, are very, very keen to interact with their environment and make something happen. It's an essential part of their learning and, frankly, of their brain development.
RATH: And you draw distinctions within a medium. Say, in television, there's a big difference for you between, say, watching "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."
CHRISTAKIS: No, that's absolutely right. One of the things that we have found in our study of young children in media is that a lot of the problems are associated with what we call overstimulation. The medium can be too fast. It's surreally paced. And that can overstimulate and ultimately damage young brains.
RATH: One of the things that was really fascinating in your work was that you talked about how - well, the effect that we can see of hyper-stimulation on mice.
CHRISTAKIS: Right. It's funny. There's only so much you can do with live infants. You - we can't bring them into the lab and overstimulate them for many years watching fast-paced programs and look at the effects on their brain. And so we've developed a mouse model of overstimulation using, if you will, mouse TV. And we find that over-stimulated mice, mice who watch television excessively during their childhood, have real deficits in their cognition. In fact, they're hyperactive and they take all kinds of risks that normal mice wouldn't take.
RATH: But not in a heroic good way we might think about.
CHRISTAKIS: No. No. They spend way too much time, for example, in the middle of an open field, which is a very dangerous thing to do as a mouse because you have very few friends in the natural world.
RATH: There's been a lot of research on the effects of television, but iPads and tablets, they're fairly new. Do we have any research so far?
CHRISTAKIS: We have to take a step back and remind ourselves that iPads are only four years old. And most of us can't even conceive of a world that existed before iPads. They feel like they've been here forever. And unfortunately, the pace of research is much, much slower than the pace of technological advances. And so in making my recommendation to parents now, I'm relying on the best available evidence. And frankly, a strong theoretical framework would suggest that judicious use of these touch-screen technologies, I think, is fine and may even be beneficial.
And incidentally, I should also point out that there's no reason whatsoever that a caregiver can't use an app with their child. It's a great opportunity for what we call joint attention. The interactions between a child and a caregiver, the back and forth, which is critical, not just to language development but to brain development.
RATH: So - sort of the way that you would with a book with your child. It's the two of you engaging in it together.
CHRISTAKIS: Absolutely. In fact, that's really what reading with your child does. It provides an opportunity for you two to interact. And all of the back and forth that goes on there can happen with a touch-screen device and, in fact, maybe even more so, depending on the design of the app.
RATH: Dr. Dimitri Christakis is a pediatrician who studies the effects of screen time on young kids. Dr. Christakis, thank you so much.
CHRISTAKIS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.