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How Will Children Fare In The Age Of Screens?

The American Academy of Pediatricians issued a warning today about small children and television: Keep them apart. The group of doctors warns that “passive entertainment” consumption carries significant risk for children under two. It cuts down on the time they hear their parents talking, it may negatively impact their sleeping patterns, and it can actually delay the development of speech. That’s a major risk in a world full of monitors and screens. But how do risks play out when children are slightly older?

As scientists have documented, passive media consumption remains risky—even when children have aged and developed enough to understand the content of the media they’re consuming. A 2010 article in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine took a close look at the problem by tracking children’s television consumption at 29 months and 53 months, then examining how the children fared in psychological, health, and academic categories in the fourth grade. The authors found a troubling correlation between television watching and negative outcomes: greater incidence of sedentary behavior and unhealthy weights; higher consumption of junk food and lower consumption of fruits and vegetables; and decreases in both classroom participation and mathematics ability. What’s more, television watching was generally higher among children of less-educated parents and single-parent families, meaning its negative effects were more pronounced on those children. The study doesn’t examine the persistence of those negative effects later in life, and the authors lament the lack of comprehensive research on “potential long-term effects of early television exposure.” But if their results suggest anything, it’s that such a study could reveal some illuminating—and disturbing—findings.