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Too much screen time is harming children's literacy skills

Article By: Richard Howard, News Editor

Television should not be used as a parenting aid, according to a study by The American Academy of Pediatrics, which found clear evidence of negative behaviour in children as a result of too much exposure to screen time at a young age.

Studying the effects upon children at between 3 and 18 months of age, the Academy highlights a range of possible long-term implications upon both mental and physical health.

For example: “Maternal TV viewing and maternal obesity and infant activity, fussiness, and crying were associated with greater infant TV exposure, whereas maternal education and infant activity were associated with having the TV on during most meals. Infants perceived as being more active or fussier had higher TV exposure, particularly if their mothers also had risk factors for higher TV exposure.”

Researchers warn there is a greater possibility of ‘developmental delays’, a more fragile state of mental health, and a higher obesity risk due to lack of activity. The Academy urges parents not to use TV viewing at all before two years of age, and even to limit exposure to 30 minutes a day for the remainder of the early years.

Author of 'Detoxing Childhood' Sue Palmer

Author and former primary school headteacher Sue Palmer is heavily-involved in campaigning to increase public awareness on declining literacy rates and the overexposure of children to screen technology, including through her books ‘Detoxing Childhood’ and ‘21st Century Boys’.

Having researched ‘toxic childhood syndrome’ herself, Ms Palmer urges day nurseries to ‘Keep it real’ when organising their early years curriculum, believing the rise of multiple screen technology not only impedes upon children’s lifestyles but also contributes to the rise of developmental disorders, such as attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

She explains: “Most scientists believe environmental influences can add to the problem (in some children they might even create it). There’s research beginning to come through suggesting that an excessively screen-based culture could play a part, particularly in the first few years when neural pathways are forming in the brain.

“One research study looked at how watching TV affected children under the age of two. For every hour of TV they watched per day, there was a 9 per cent increase in attention deficit by the time the child was seven. The researchers thought that rapid changes of image on TV could make an immature brain go into overdrive – so when the child looks away from the screen, real life is boring.

“A US study recently found a strong link between autism and the number of hours spent watching TV by children under three. At the same time UK researchers were discovering that six- to eight-year-olds now prefer to look at a blank screen rather than a human face.”

Children’s laureate Julia Donaldson, author of ‘The Gruffalo’, is another writer concerned with poor literacy rates in children, having recently criticised the Department for Education’s reliance on phonics-based reading tests, when speaking at a launch for short plays focused on improving reading skills.

Mrs Donaldson called for a more versatile approach, saying: “Any good teacher knows you need a variety of ways of reading.” She continued, “It is important to learn the different sounds, and teachers do their own checks. I think it is a bit patronising for teachers,” while “the government underestimates how easily children can feel that they’re not quite up to scratch.”

PM David Cameron attends last year's World Book Day

Another recent US study to raise similar concerns was carried out by Alliance for Children. Research for ‘Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology and Early Education’ was conducted as part of a campaign for a ‘commercial-free childhood’ with the aim of highlighting the negative effects of what is considered to be unhealthy children’s entertainment.

To quote the findings: “Based on mounting evidence, we are worried about the harm done to children’s health, development, and learning in today’s media-saturated, commercially-driven culture. It’s clear that both the nature of what children encounter on screens and the amount of time they spend with screens are vital issues. We agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics and other public health organisations that many young children are spending too much time with screens—and that screen time should be discouraged for infants and toddlers, and carefully limited for older children.

“In the interests of children’s well-being, we believe the early childhood community needs to study the issues surrounding screen technologies, make informed decisions about their use in classrooms and childcare settings, and work with parents to manage screen time and content in ways that best serve young children.”

The study also finds that new technologies, such as mobile phones and web-based innovations, have not displaced television screen time but added to it, with the amount of exposure increasing over the early years period as children grow and gain access to more alternatives.

The Alliance sees too much screen content as encouraging more limited mental responses, impacting on creative thinking and even aspects of humanity, for example: “Games and digital activities that limit children to a predetermined set of responses have been shown to diminish creativity. Exposure to media violence is linked to aggression, desensitisation to violence, and lack of empathy for victims.”

Further issues listed include childhood obesity, sleep disturbance, learning attention and social problems.

“Modern science confirms what the early childhood community has known for years – that infants, toddlers, and young children learn through exploring with their whole bodies, including all of their senses. For optimal development, in addition to food and safety, they need love. They need to be held, and they need plenty of face-to-face positive interactions with caring adults. Developing children thrive when they are talked to, read to, and played with. They need time for hands-on creative play, physically active play, and give-and-take interactions with other children and adults. They benefit from a connection with nature and opportunities to initiate explorations of their world.

“In the last few decades, discoveries in the neurosciences have made clear why the early years of life are so critical. The basic architecture of the human brain develops through an ongoing, evolving and predictable process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Early experiences literally shape how the brain gets built. A strong foundation in the early years increases the probability of positive outcomes later. A weak foundation does just the opposite.” Current Ofsted guidelines state that “computer use should not be permitted for children younger than two years” while “for children two years and older in early care and early education settings, total media time should be limited to not more than 30 minutes once a week, and for educational or physical activity use only.”

Speaking at a Booktrust event recently, children’s literature writer Dame Jacqueline Wilson made a plea for parents to cherish reading time and what it might ultimately mean for adult life, saying:

“When I was a toddler, every child had free orange juice and cod liver oil. This was to nourish our bodies. Now that we're caring about nourishing children's imaginations, I think it's equally important.

“Reading aloud to small children is the very best way of creating keen readers in adult life. We know that a good book is a source of endless pleasure, a way of widening experience and increasing understanding. It can be awe-inspiring, stimulating, comforting, astonishing – a way of travelling around the world – indeed experiencing many fantasy worlds – whilst curled up in an armchair.”

John Siraj-Blatchford, honorary professor at the University of Swansea centre for child research

New technologies do have their defenders, however, and honorary professor at the University of Swansea centre for child research, John Siraj-Blatchford is keen to see that a balanced approach unimpeded by generational divides is adopted.

Explaining why he is keen to promote the use of mobile touch screen technologies in early childhood, he says: “Because all the evidence points to it being the most appropriate for young children in terms of accessibility, and even more importantly in terms of play based pedagogy.

“That said I am sceptical of the technology ‘digital divide’ argument – good technology is intuitive and shouldn't require extended training or experience to gain proficiency so children can catch up on that – technology is also changing all the time and new users often leapfrog over established users of old technologies.

“But overwhelming evidence shows that a real ‘divide’ in terms of learning and development is significantly disadvantaging many children.

“It is a literacy divide and caused by major differences in the quality of the early language and literacy environment they grow up in. New technologies have significant potential in improving language environments for these disadvantaged children.”

Last year's World Book Day launch

World Book Day, organised by former children’s librarians Anne Marley, Annie Everall and Naomi Cooper, takes place on 7 March. Ms Everall says: “On the many occasions that we have organised events bringing authors, illustrators, poets and storytellers together with children, we have seen the impact that the experience has had on those taking part.”

Other literacy focused events taking place throughout the year include The Reading Agency’s ‘Six Book Challenge’ and Children’s Book Week on May 13–19.


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