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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Washington Researchers Develop Digital Media Guidelines to Tackle Growing Impact on Child Health

More children, even in low-income households, are using digital media on a daily basis. Researchers from the University of Washington School of Public Health say too much media or the wrong type of content may affect child health and development and interfere with family relationships.

In a policy statement released October 21 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers highlighted several concerns that persist for young children who use digital media and offered recommendations for parents and pediatricians.

[Photo: Dr. Dimitri Christakis]

“Children today are often referred to as digital natives because they are immersed in media from a very young age,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, adjunct professor of health services at the School and professor of pediatrics at the UW School of Medicine. “Whereas 25 years ago the typical child began watching television at age four, today they begin as toddlers.”

To address the influence of media on children, from newborns to 5-year-olds, researchers reviewed existing literature on television, videos and mobile or interactive technologies. They considered the potential for educational benefit and the related health concerns.

Heavy media use during preschool years is linked to small but significant increases in body mass index and sets the stage for weight gain later in childhood, according to the statement. Digital media use may also explain disparities in obesity risk in minority children.

“The media landscape is far more complicated today than it was five years ago when the last policy statement was issued,” Dr. Christakis said. “This new one is intended to update parents with the latest science on early viewing and child health.”

Researchers recommended that parents not only pay attention to the amount of time children spend on digital media, but also how, when and where they use it.

For children ages 2 to 5, media should be limited to one hour a day, the statement reads, and it should involve high-quality, educational programming such as Sesame Street. Parents should engage with the media alongside their children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply what they learn to the world around them.

Many parents use video-chat services such as FaceTime and Skype to facilitate social connection between their children and distant relatives, the statement reads. With the exception of this activity, digital media should be avoided entirely in children younger than 18 to 24 months, researchers say.

Parents should also avoid using media as the only way to calm their child. Because parent media use is a strong predictor of child media habits, the researchers noted, reducing parental media use and enhancing parent-child interactions may be an important area of behavior change.

Dr. Christakis was lead author of the policy statement alongside Dr. Jenny Radesky, a former resident at UW Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. Dr. Megan Moreno, adjunct associate professor of health services at UW School of Public Health and associate professor of pediatrics at UW School of Medicine, was a contributing author.