In recent weeks, papers worldwide have punched parents' guilt buttons yet again by hyping a study that claims screen time harms children. Editors seemingly competed to give the Iowa State University research the most extreme headline: "Watching TV and playing video games can 'DOUBLE risk of getting ADHD'," "Video games decrease attention span," and the clear winner from the UK's Express, TV DAMAGES A CHILD'S BRAIN.
Planes that land safely aren't news, so "TV makes your kids dumb" is a much more compelling headline than "A limited amount of carefully-chosen programming can contribute to early learning, especially with parental co-viewing." In May, two studies came out simultaneously - one said "TV is harmful"; the other said "turning off TV doesn't help if parents don't engage with their children." Guess which grabbed headlines?
Given the steady flow of research that says everything you've done is wrong, it's a wonder parents aren't paralyzed! They'd be greatly helped if they, and the journalists who cover such studies, had the research literacy to weigh strengths and weaknesses. For example:
Was the sample size large or small? Research on a limited group may suggest direction for further study, but is hard to generalize to the population.
Was the study based on an observed behavior or someone's recollections? The Iowa State study was based on two sets of anecdotal evidence - parents' estimates of children's time spent with media and teachers' assessments of students' attention problems. It's amusing that in the Des Moines Register coverage of this study, a representative from the American Academy of Pediatrics said parents are "relatively clueless" about children's media use - the same parents on whose accurate recounting the study rests.
Did the study find "correlation" or "causation"? Almost 100% of serial killers drank milk as children (correlation); however, milk drinking does not lead to murder (causation). The University of Montreal study cited above noted that "preexisting maternal or familial factors predicted television exposure and were consistently related to most of the dependent variables." In other words, screen time doesn't exist in a vacuum; it is related to family needs. If you live in an unsafe neighborhood, TV may be the safest option; children in dysfunctional families may spend more time alone with the screen; parents struggling to make ends meet may not be able to afford quality child care.
There may even be an element of reverse causation: troubled young people might well seek out media as a familiar and non-judgmental companion, as noted in this gaming magazine article about the Iowa State research.
Did the study take content into account? Carrots and cupcakes both count as food intake, but wouldn't have the same result as a dietary staple. Neither the Iowa State nor the University of Montreal studies looked at content; however, the Iowa researchers felt comfortable saying that fast editing pace is responsible for attention problems.
Did the research weigh environmental elements like socio-economic status, parental education, parental co-viewing and overall involvement with the child? What a child brings to the television is at least equal to what the child takes away; parents of toddlers who show attention problems may allow more TV because it calms or focuses the child.
Did the study look at children's broader habits and activities? The release from the University of Montreal research says "common sense would have it that TV exposure replaces time that could be spent engaging in other developmentally enriching activities and tasks." Young people's lives are not one-dimensional, nor does every moment has to be programmed; in fact, this plays into the hands of those who market products guaranteed to make kids smart.
When confronted with definitive or bombastic headlines, parents should remember that research is a process and not a destination. No single study is definitive (consider the shifting advice on red wine or chocolate) and, because people's lives are complex, it's almost impossible to attribute cause in areas like media use and development.
Read and weigh stories about research, but devote more time to finding trusted sources for content reviews. Unless your family chooses no screen time (a perfectly fine choice, but clearly not feasible for all), the best payoff is in choosing TV shows, websites, mobile apps and games that suit your own children's age, developmental stage, needs, interests and abilities.
David Kleeman is President of the American Center for Children and Media, an industry-led creative professional development and resource center. He looks worldwide for best practices in children's TV and digital media.