The other day we talked about why we should encourage kids to engage with digital media. The essence of the discussion was that kids need to use media in order to become media literate. Media literacy on the other hand is an essential skill for kids that grow up in our digital age.
At the same time, it goes without saying that digital media is not only good. Let’s take a look at three reasons why media can be bad for children:
1. Too much media consumption
The first and most obvious reason why media can have a negative effect on the development of children is too much media consumption. Now this is a tricky one. Because there will always be the question “How much is too much?”. And honestly, the answer is hard to pin down. For obvious ethical reasons, it’s not possible to run experiments on kids in order to find out how much media results in a negative effect. And furthermore, how does the effect differ between good and bad media?
Of course, there are studies that try to proof a relationship between media usage and the learning success of children. However, usually these studies fail to eliminate external influences, such as the family background, or financial situation, which also have a huge impact on how well a child develops and learns.
So how much media is reasonable? For physical reasons, I would recommend to limit screen time per day to 30 minutes for children under 3 years of age. For children 3 years+, I wouldn’t worry about increasing screen time occasionally – and in a healthy balance with activities that are not screen related. For example, half an hour of screen time could be matched with two hours of playing outside or engaging in other physical activities.
2. Age inappropriate content
Next to the amount of media, it is important to consider what kind of media children consume. Both the content and the structure should differ between different age groups. Some content can be interesting for a broader age group. For example, a game that works on multiple levels can just be colorful and engaging for small kids and fun and exciting for older kids.
Children are usually a pretty accurate indicator if media is appropriate for their cognitive level of development or not. Media that is too complex is not very catchy because children cannot follow it. Media that is too simple on the other hand is boring. In both cases, there is no reason to worry about too much age-inappropriate media consumption.
What’s more relevant is the content itself. If the characters and concepts used in a medium are not age appropriate, meaning they require higher levels of cognitive and social development than a child has, the child can easily get overwhelmed. The storyline might be too fast, putting the child in a stress situation. Or the child might not understand the difference between the medium and reality, taking fiction or exaggerated content for real.
3. Poor adult supervision
Another reason why media can be bad for kids is a complete lack or neglected supervision. Adults, be it parents, teachers, or the nanny, are responsible for the amount and the kind of media that children use. Also, when children engage with media – especially for the first couple of times – it is essential to supervise them.
Kids need to learn how to use media, but also how to interpret content. If children don’t understand what they see, or if they feel overwhelmed, it is important that they can ask questions and fall back to a safe, offline world.