Spring 2013 Health Link Online

HealthLink Online

Uniting Children, Parents, Caregivers, and Health Professionals

Screen Time, Digital Literacy

Screen Time, Digital Literacy

 Screen Time, Digital Media Literacy:  What’s an ECE Practitioner to Do?

Two expert policy statements make recommendations about the appropriate use of media by young children. One is a statement from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in partnership with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media (FRC). The other is from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

The rapid development of digital media has evolved ahead of available research about their effects on children. Increasingy, we see parents putting their cell phones in the hands of their infants and toddlers to distract them while the parent is busy with something. Children have access to i-pads, cell phones, digital cameras and computers. Scientists who study brain development have evidence that early exposure to screens changes the way the brain is "wired" in ways that may lead to problems learning and relating to others. Definitive research is growing about how these devices affect young children. For now, we must rely on the expert policy statements from NAEYC-FRC and AAP. 

The national child care standards, Caring for Our Children, (CFOC) third ed. 20111 are the current policy for early care and education facilities of two national organizations, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association. CFOC Standard cites AAP policy that discourages TV viewing for children younger than 2 years of age. In addition, the standard says that the total screen time for older children during child care hours should be not more than 30 minutes once each week. This allowable 30 minutes should be only for physical activity or educational purposes.  In child care, children should use computers for no more than 15 minute increments, except for school-age children doing homework assignments. While at home, children who use child care often exceed the AAP policy of no more than a total of 1-2 hours of screen time per 24 hours2. The problem is that passive screen time displaces more developmentally appropriate activities. Examples of better activities are mutual conversation with or reading by caregivers, and active floor time for development of gross and fine motor skills.

Researchers have found that having a television on in the background decreases the amount of speaking that a caregiver engages in with an infant by 80%! When caregivers and infants “speak” or babble to each other, the infants learn language.  Listening to television conversation does not teach infants to speak.  A study that examined 12, 24, and 36-month-old children found that background television reduced the length of time that a child played. Excessive passive screen time viewing can decrease physical activity.  It also reduces the child’s focused attention during play.  A major goal for all children is to develop their ability to focus on a task.  In addition, watching TV exposes children to commercials promoting sugary and fattening foods.

The Pennsylvania’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) has an initiative which aims to guide the field in the appropriate use of digital media in early childhood settings.  Dr. Barbara Minzenberg, Deputy Secretary of OCDEL, and I agree that children need to be digital media literate for a successful future.  Those who are “at risk” for school failure will benefit most from being “literate” in the use and selection of interactive technological tools. 

NAEYC’s 2012 policy statement3 defines Interactive media as “digital and analog materials, including software programs, applications (apps), broadcast and streaming media, some children’s television programming, e-books, the Internet, and other forms of content designed to facilitate active and creative use by young children and to encourage social engagement with other children and adults.” “Non-interactive media include certain television programs, videos, DVDs, and streaming media now available on a variety of screens.” Non-interactive technology tools and media are not included in NAEYC’s definition of effective and appropriate use. Non-interactive media can lead to passive viewing and overexposure to screen time for young children. They are not substitutes for interactive and engaging uses of digital media or for interactions with adults and other children. NAEYC-FRC and AAP policy statements emphasize that screen time, when used, should be interactive.   The key word is interactive!  

Dr. Roberta Schomburg, a Fred Rogers Fellow, writes that, “during the preschool years, young chil­dren are developing a sense of initiative and creativity. They are curious about the world around them and about learning. They are exploring their ability to cre­ate and communicate using a variety of media (crayons, felt-tip markers, paints and other art materials, blocks, dramatic play materials, miniature life figures) and through creative movement, singing, danc­ing, and using their bodies to represent ideas and experiences. Digital technolo­gies provide one more outlet for them to demonstrate their creativity and learning.” Dr. Schomburg offers the following examples of appropriate use of digital media for preschool-age children: 

  • Explore digital storytelling with children.
  • Co-create digital books with photos of the children’s play or work.
  •  Attach digital audio files (to the created books) with the child as the narrator.
  • Capture photos of block buildings or artwork that children have created.
  • Videotape dramatic play to replay for children.
  • Use video-conferencing software to communicate with families and children in other places.

Technology and media use must be appropriate to the age, developmental and language level, needs, interestsand abilities of each child. Most technology and media are inappropriate for children from birth to 2 years of age. No documented research supports an association between passive viewing of screen media and specific learning outcomes in infants and toddlers.    Infants and toddlers need responsive interactions with adults. Mobile, multi-touch screens and newer technologies have changed the way our youngest children interact with images, sounds, and ideas.  Caregivers/teachers must be sure that any exposure to technology and media is limited to developmentally appropriate, standards-based, and intentional activities. It is not a substitute for direct interpersonal interaction. It should include shared joint attention and language-rich interactions.

This article was written by Beth DelConte, MD, FAAP- ECELS Pediatric Advisor with contributions by Roberta L. Schomburg, PhD, Associate Dean and Professor, Carlow University School of Education, Pittsburgh and Barbara G. Minzenberg, Ph.D. | Deputy Secretary, PA Departments of Education and Public Welfare, Office of Child Development and Early Learning


  1. Caring for Our Children: National health and safety performance standards; Guidelines for early care and education programs. 3rd edition. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; Washington, DC: American Public Health Association. Available at http://nrckids.org.
  2. Media Use by Children Younger than 2 Years, AAP Policy Statement, Council on Communications and Media, http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/10/12/peds.2011-1753.full.pdf+html
  3. Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, A joint position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College,  www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PSTECH98.PDF