Ryan was only four years old when he started unboxing toys to use with his camera in 2015. A few years later—assisted by his mother, who left her job as a high school teacher to work with him full time—he was YouTube’s highest-earning star, of any age. In 2020, his daily videos blurred the lines between entertainment and commerce earned him a record-breaking $29.5million. His channel is now called Ryan’s WorldThe video has been viewed more 60 million times since its release in 2007. My four-year-old son was fascinated by Ryan’s videos and discovered him. As Ryan opened boxes and talked about new toys, he created a virtual space of limitless wonder for kids—including my own.
When it comes to children’s experiences, today’s media ecosystem is dramatically different from the one in which I grew up. In addition to multiple cable television networks with ad-supported children’s programming available around the clock, a proliferation of new online channels feature short, on-demand, “snackable”Forms of amateur film.
Parents can also download content from Amazon and Netflix to play on their kids’ mobile devices. In a sea of choice, young users move freely from channel to channel and device to device, from large screens to small ones, through an endless variety of professionally and not-so-professionally produced short-, medium-, and long-form content.
It is crucial that content creators move from being professionals in television and film production to becoming amateurs online. Computer algorithms are responsible to curate and serve up user-generated content like YouTube and TikTok videos that is tailored to young people’s needs. These algorithms are so sophisticated that in some cases they reveal—arguably create—previously unknown markets, markets that producers and advertisers are eager to reach to capitalize on children’s surprising and peculiar preferences. Who could have predicted that Ryan’s toy reviews and unboxing videos would take off? The unboxing style was impossible a few decades back.
Research continues to show that children under three years old aren’t exposed to enough media to benefit their health. There are very few educational advantages.
These changes raise many questions. What is the impact of shifts in media consumption by young children—increasing the quantity of content consumed, from new and questionable sources, via more screens than ever before? How does this type of media consumption affect the developing brain? What is the impact on our mental and bodily health?
As I’ve noted before, there is not always fresh, directly relevant research available to answer such questions. Science is quickly catching up to the rapidly changing media landscape. We can still draw insights from previous research on traditional media, and integrate those findings with neuroscience’s growing understanding of childhood brain development. As I detail in this chapter, the available research shows that our brains, and our children’s brains, are being rewired in ways that need to be examined. Before we proceed, however, it is important to raise some caveats, as there are several challenges inherent in interpreting decades of research on television and applying it to today’s media world.
First, the new media environment is different in terms production and access. Video content used to be created by professionals and was consumed at a particular time of the day in the past. Broadcasters set schedules that enabled parents and caregivers to limit children’s viewing to professionally produced content like Sesame Street.
1969 was the first broadcast. Sesame StreetThe program’s purpose was to provide high-quality and research-driven learning content for children, especially those living in poverty. This programming required a lot more than just actors. The show’s success is undisputed. By contrast, today’s user-generated amateur content, often made with less admirable goals, is produced by small groups and individuals wherever their smartphones take them. The media content that adults and kids consume today is quite different from what was examined in past media consumption studies.
Second, the presentation and availability of these content has changed. These often amateur contents can be accessed 24/7 on mobile devices that parents often have difficulty monitoring (more information below). Now, our children can consume media without parental supervision. They can access what they want whenever they want. The screen sizes have changed. Although TV screens are larger, the majority of screen time is spent viewing small, portable images on smartphones, tablets, and other devices.
Early viewing habits can have devastating effects on our mental, emotional, and physical health throughout our lives.
Third, engagement in new media is not the same thing as traditional media. Traditional television offers a passive viewing experience. A director or producer creates a rich audiovisual story. This story is linear and clearly defines the beginning, middle, and end. We follow along. This triggers what neuroscientists term bottom-up process. It refers to the subcortical or lower networks of neurons in a brain which drive the process.
This is a vastly different approach to how we interact with new media online or via apps. Apps and online media encourage more switching and skipping, and are more interactive. New media triggers more top-down process, with the brain’s networks in its upper prefrontal cortex in charge. Top-down processing allows users to be co-producers of the experience by making choices and reacting constantly.
Young people are more inclined to pay attention to new media. This causes them to consume more media in a shorter amount of time, which can lead directly to greater emotional rewards. As we’ll see, these emotional experiences and attentional patterns can leave a mark on the prefrontal cortex that mediates them. This could result in a decrease in attention span later in life.
Fourth, media multitasking is one of the key factors in shorter media attention spans. This refers either to simultaneous use on multiple media devices or one device that is used for a different task (e.g homework). It is not surprising that media multitasking has increased in recent years due to the accessibility and mobility of modern media. Multitasking has serious consequences for children and adults alike. Researchers are challenged to think critically about their work. Multitasking in media was not considered in the older research. This new area needs to be looked at from many angles.
Fifth, it is difficult for children to see exactly what they eat on small screens so much of the current research relies on questionnaires aimed at parents and younger people. This increases the risk of bias in usage data as people may over- or under-report media use depending on how and when they are asked. To ensure accuracy, researchers must be able to combine survey data with other methods.
These methods still exist, and surveys are still very useful. Surveys of parents and kids suggest that traditional television viewing research can still be useful and can be used to supplement new media studies. One example is the fact that children still watch a lot of entertainment videos on YouTube and Netflix, despite the increased use of interactive apps and mobile computers.
Old- and new media research both face the same problem: even the strongest correlations between behaviors or outcomes don’t prove causation. It is important not to interpret a relationship between two variables as if one variable caused the other. As we will see ADHD children consume much more media than normal, and they love multitasking.
This could mean that ADHD children are more likely than others to multitask and consume media. Or are they suffering from ADHD symptoms. We will see that there is strong evidence to support a causal link. This link cannot be assumed. It requires careful analysis and research in order to prove it.
The data showed that each hour of video content infants (age 8–18 months) watched per day was associated with a significant DiminutionLanguage acquisition
We have a wealth older, more rigorous research to assist us. Judiciously interpreted, it can and should inform today’s raging debate about the impact of screen time and mobile media use on children and adolescents. Traditional media studies, especially when combined with recent advances and understandings of brain development and their implications for new media, offer insight into what we should expect from children today as they become adults.
Julie Aigner Clark, a stay-at home mother and former teacher of English in high school, was Julie Aigner Clark. Aigner-Clark wondered if there was a way to introduce her one-year-old daughter to science and the art. She looked around, but couldn’t find any infant education market. She decided to create her curriculum. With the help of her husband, she borrowed a camera to shoot her first film in her basement.
It was the birth, and eventual fame, of a brand new media concept and a company: Baby Einstein. “Everything I did in the first videos was based on my experience as a mom,”She stated this in an interview. “I didn’t do any research. I knew my baby. I knew what she liked to look at. I assumed that what my baby liked to look at, most other babies would, too.”
Millions of parents loved the idea that you could show children as young as six months old high culture and foreign languages through videos. The first series, also known as “The First Series”The film,, was released in 2006. Baby EinsteinOthers followed the lead set by Baby Mozart, Baby Galileo, Baby Shakespeare. The videos were often simple and contained only toys, puppets, shapes, and poetry. The videos were loved by parents who boasted that their children would listen intently for hours and learn. Baby Einstein products won several awards, including the Best Video prize. Parenting magazine. At its peak, Baby Einstein’s videos were in nearly one-third of American households with children under two years of age.
The success of the UK program sparked competition. The UK program TeletubbiesOthers followed Aigner-Clark’s lead by creating educational and entertaining content in 1998. After a few years, Aigner-Clark herself wasn’t having much fun, facing the pressures of leading a growing business. In 2001, she sold the company for an undisclosed amount to Disney. The acquisition of Baby Einstein provides Disney with another high quality brand franchise which serves one of our core customer segments— families with small children,” Disney president Bob Iger explained.
A few more years passed before things changed. This journal published a 2007 paper. PediatricsThe first in a series of articles that examined the educational effect on infant videos was this research article. The researchers called more than a thousand parents of children age two or younger to survey them about their child’s viewing habits and administer a short version of a well-validated language test used to assess children’s early verbal skills.
These results were not favorable for Baby Einstein or video exposure in infanthood. The data showed that each hour of video content infants (age 8–18 months) watched per day was associated with a significant DiminutionLanguage acquisition. This effect was particularly evident in the youngest children. The evidence showed that infants weren’t learning language at a faster pace, and that they were falling behind.
The research was furthered. TimeThe provocative and critical article entitled “Baby Einsteins: Not So Smart After All.”Child advocacy groups and the US Federal Trade Commission also questioned the validity of claims regarding the products. Disney pulled the plug under pressure “educational”From its marketing. The company offered parents a return on DVDs purchased by them. This was seen to be an admission that the DVDs had been purchased. “were not producing Einsteins after all.”
Today’s researchers point out four main reasons to be worried about children watching television or video before the age of three. First, brain development occurs in the first three years following birth. It is therefore crucial to consider the interactions of genetics and neuronal as well as environment. Evidence has shown that children exposed to bright lights and fast-paced videos can have a significant impact on their attention and cognition. Background television can also impact the interaction between young children and their toys and their parents.
Second, video can’t teach babies and toddlers much. Children can understand what is happening on the screen, but they lack the cognitive skills necessary to translate that information into useful knowledge in the real world. This is likely why education failure is so prevalent. Baby EinsteinSimilar audiovisual products can be found for children as young three years old. This may be due to the infantile prefrontal cortex and immature brain. A lack of maturity that results in poor attentional control, a weak memory, and inability to abstract and symbolically think.
Evidence suggests that infants are not learning language at a faster rate than they should.
One of the key pieces supporting the video-transfer deficit is a controlled, randomized study in 2010 on vocabulary learning. Researchers recruited 96 children from families with children 12-18 months old. The researchers then assigned each child to one of four groups. One group watched the infant-learning DVD at most five days per week without a parent present. Another group watched the video with a parent but not as often. The third group of kids was tasked with learning the same words only through interaction with their parents—no DVD. A fourth group was used as a reference and was not exposed at all to the words. The study lasted a month, and the children were tested to see how well they knew the words during and after the study.
The results clearly showed that toddlers who were exposed to video did not learn more words than the control group, even if they were taught by a parent. Toddlers who were not taught by their parents had the greatest learning results. Parents who watched the DVD with children and reported that it was enjoyable had a tendency not to underestimate how much their children learned.
This study shows that video cannot replace face-toface interaction in infant learning. Adults who believe otherwise are assuming brain resources that don’t yet exist. Video-based education does not support social interaction with parents because there is no video learning among toddlers.
The displacement hypothesis is another concern about the viewing habits of very young kids. Video could replace other age-appropriate activities such as face-to-face interactions, creative playtime, outdoor activity, and physical movement. All of these activities have been proven to be beneficial for brain health. According to surveys, children spend as much as three hours each day with media. This is a significant amount of time that they are not engaging in developmentalally important tasks.
The negative effects of early viewing habits on our emotional, physical, and social health can last a lifetime. Early exposure can cause young brains not to learn how to control their emotions and moods. Habits are formed over time. They are influenced by emotionally rewarding stimuli. It becomes more difficult to change them as they become more deeply embedded in the brain.
Researchers Dimitri Christakis and Frederick Zimmerman stated that they meant one type media. “The influence that television might play in this neuromaturational process should not be underestimated.”
This can lead to many problems for children, such as a lower executive function, mental health issues, and higher nearsightedness rates. This can also lead to other health problems. Research continues to show that children younger than 3 years old are not exposed enough media to reap any health benefits and are also exposed to very limited educational opportunities. The video-transfer deficit cannot be avoided.
These findings are true regardless if you are of a socioeconomic class. These research findings are so convincing that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), discourages media exposure of children under two years of age.
Excerpted From Rewired: Protecting your Brain in the Digital Age By Carl D. Marci, MD. Copyright Ⓒ 2022. Available from Harvard University Press