Is screen time safe for young children?

It seems like every year the topic of screen time is in the news. In the last twelve months alone, the BBC ran an article with the headline “No sedentary screen time for babies, WHO says” (I’d argue it’s difficult for a baby to have non-sedentary screen time, let’s be fair, young babies just sort of lie there a lot). The NHS had one called “Guidelines issued on activity and screen time for babies and toddlers” NCT had an optimistically-titled “Screen time for babies and toddlers: the evidence.”

Across the pond, where everything is sensationalized and politicized as outrage seems to have become a national pastime, which must be like living amongst the pages of the Daily Mail, WebMD gives us “too much screentime may stunt toddlers’ brains” and The Cleveland Clinic boldly asserts “too much screen time harmful for kids’ development” while a published article in “Intractable Rare Diseases” on the NIH website examines “Early electronic screen exposure and autistic-like symptoms” which (predictably) the regrettably local rag (but for some reason very popular in the US) the Daily Mail seized upon with “Babies Glued to tablets or telly ‘could develop autism-like symptoms’ controversial study warns”. I’m not linking to that one because it only improves their standing with search engines, so if you want to read it, Google it.

First I want to deconstruct the news coverage of this topic, then I’m going to look at the actual evidence, including scientific studies on development and language.

So the headlines, then, are pretty grim. If we believe the titles of all these articles, my child should be so developmentally challenged that he is trying to breathe through his own eyeballs. He isn’t, in case anyone is in any doubt.

These headlines aren’t constructed to inform you about the latest scientific developments. News sites have a vested interest in getting lots of hits, because it pushes their content up Google’s search algorithm, so it’s in their best interests to pump out as many clickable (dare I say, “clickbaity”) article titles to make sure they get lots of traffic. They make a lot of money off their advertising revenue, as well, and they want as many eyes as possible on those adverts.

It’s funny how the more drama-y and sensationalist an article is, the less important the issue is, in the grand scheme of things.

So what makes people click on these articles? Human interest. The vast majority of parents want the very best for their child. When they see something that claims to warn them of the dangers of something they let their kids do, they will click on it. Other people with a vested interest in a child, such as aunts, grandparents, or friends, will also click on these articles, thinking they can “warn” the hapless parents before they accidentally turn their baby’s brain to jelly with the old 60 inch plasma Radiation Queen. The news outlets manipulate you and play on your fears to try and make you read their articles. They don’t actually care if you believe the article or not. Every click means more people seeing the adverts that pay for the news sites to stay profitable. And no one is easier to manipulate and scare than first time parents, so articles targeting their worries and magnifying them are big money for news sites.

It’s an old news article that basically goes around and around and has done since television was invented. Before that, there were fears about radios damaging children (which is now being reported again but the hysteria is linked to baby monitors, instead). In its current form, a fear of baby monitors being dangerous, the story isn’t as newsworthy as fears surrounding screen time. Video (news) killed the radio (news) star. Before that? Well you only have to read Anne of Green Gables or Little Women to see the Victorians feared that reading books as a child would ruin your eyes.

It’s a pretty common comment for an adult to make to a child (or about a child) in Victorian literature. There were even studies done by Victorian scientists where they claimed that too much schoolwork caused children’s eyes to “weaken”. This study from 1885 even goes so far as to claim that, since working-class children were more at risk of this than middle class children (the author’s test results being separated into grammar schools and secondary schools), they ought to send working-class children to special schools where they weren’t slowing down the rest of the class with their “weak eyes”.

He also claimed that less intelligent children were more at risk of eye damage than more intelligent children, evidenced by the fact that children with “good eyes” did better at school and were therefore more intelligent. This is a perfect illustration of the problem with any scientific research that only looks for correlation between two variables. Correlation doesn’t imply causality. We know, for example, that lung cancer doesn’t cause smoking. Additionally, the class bias against working class children is still a huge issue, and working class parents are more likely to put their kids in front of the TV because they don’t have the time or money to entertain them any other way.

Sadly, the same nonsense about reading damaging eyes is currently doing the rounds in East Asia, as this article shows, and still nobody has questioned the glaring problem with correlating glasses-wearing and children who read more, which is that children who read less might have undiagnosed and uncorrected eye problems (or refusing to wear glasses, families can’t afford eye tests etc) that is skewing the results.

Hold that whole concept in your mind while we look at what the articles believe to be the danger of screen time more deeply, because it all stems from the same insecurity.

First let’s tackle the BBC article I mentioned above: “No sedentary screen time for babies, WHO says.” This article has absolutely nothing to do with any dangers from the screen time itself, and can be boiled down to “sitting still makes children obese.” So from that point of view, including healthy diet and exercise in your day is a better solution than banning televisions. But as I’ve noted earlier on, that doesn’t get people to click. In the BBC’s case, while they don’t have advertising revenue to worry about, they still have to justify (to the government) the level of funding they get. So the clicky title is basically just a spin on “children need exercise”.

The NHS article discusses the same WHO recommendation, explaining that experts point out there is actually no evidence that screens are harmful, and that the WHO recommendation is talking about physical activity levels, not some mysterious brain damage associated with screen time.

The NCT article tried to cover too much ground and it doesn’t look critically at the studies (they don’t mention their strengths and weaknesses, or how much of the focus was specifically to do with screen time, and they have lumped together a range of outcomes instead of looking at each separately). It says screen use has been linked in studies to poor sleep; it claimed “Some research in younger children (one to three year olds) who watched TV showed increased levels of attention deficit disorders at the age of seven.”

It then went on to add, “Although a more recent review found that evidence for this was weak.” Inline citations would have made this easier to verify. The article overall concludes that responsible screen time is beneficial, then they have a wall of quotes from NCT volunteers explaining why they put their kids in front of the TV. Because nothing rounds off a sensationalist article like some good old-fashioned anecdotal evidence.

The authors don’t look at the same evidence the WHO was using, and don’t reference the WHO report at all, which is a bit of an omission. They also claim there aren’t any NHS and NICE guidelines on screen use in babies, which is not true. There is no date on this article but it has to be later than 2019 because one of the references is 2019. Overall, it feels like the author of the article used the first 5 studies they found in Google, without weighing up the strengths of them, and then posted on Facebook in an NCT group to get the quotes.

The actual evidence:

This study from 2016 had a sample size of 715, and found that age of first touch screen use correlated with better fine motor control in toddlers. Of course, that could be because parents trusted children with better motor control to use expensive tablets/phones. The methodology was a self-reporting survey of parents, so the drawback is the information is not independently verified beyond what parents have said.

A 2015 meta-analysis found that “rapid visual and auditory changes can
distract young children from exploration and toy playtime as their attention is directed towards the screen numerous times during a play session” when the TV is on as background noise. There’s no evidence about whether this is an issue or not, but babies and toddlers do need to explore. This is unlikely to apply to pre-crawling babies though because they don’t really do much anyway.

We all want what is best for our children, but fearing new technology isn’t the way to prepare them for the adult world. Trusting children and teaching them to use devices responsibly is a far better solution. People don’t just unplug the TV when they give birth and turn it back on when the baby reaches age 2. It’s not realistic to tell people that the under twos shouldn’t be “exposed” to screens. I would also argue it’s quite antifeminist because it prevents women with young babies from working from home, in case the baby looks at the screen. We need to find ways to work sensibly with technology, and we need to stop being told stupid “parenting” advice because television isn’t going away and every decade, new devices are invented for us to worry about.

Does screen time cause ADHD?

I would be interested to see more studies on this, but my own childhood is a good example of how TV doesn’t always correlate with ADHD.

I have been diagnosed with ADHD after 5 years of investigation by psychiatrists, and I grew up in a house without a television until I was 5, then split my time between my grandma’s house where there was only a 12 inch black and white TV with four channels, and my parents’ house where my half-sister had unlimited TV time and usually put the same video on repeat (she didn’t get sent to grandma’s as much as I did), so from my point of view, there must be something else causing ADHD, because I have it and she doesn’t.

That’s not to say I don’t think there’s a connection between screen time/TV and ADHD, but I don’t think it’s a direct cause so much as that kids with ADHD get more screen time as a product of their hyperfocus. I hope there’s some good studies done about this soon.

Update: Since writing this article, I found this article from ADDitude, which explains the state of research into this topic in more detail. Basically, early TV shows an increased correlation, but since ADHD is something you are born with, it’s more likely that parents of ADHD children put them in front of the TV as they’re “too energetic” or “easily bored” or similar, or perhaps being made to sit still in front of a TV makes ADHD behaviors more easily expressed at which point they are diagnosed… remember folks, correlation doesn’t imply causality (after all, we know cancer doesn’t cause smoking).

How to deal with poo in reusable cloth nappies

It’s not a pleasant topic, is it? But, as lovely as the idea of cloth nappies is, there’s always this worry, lurking at the back of my mind. What if they won’t come clean one day?

So there I was, standing in the kitchen, holding a nappy covered in poo and with no idea at all how to clean it. I vaguely remembered my grandma showing me how to do this with those godawful terry towelling squares back when I was about 7, and I know I thought it was disgusting, and swore to myself that my twenty babies would all wear disposable nappies. But then, I also knew I was going to grow up to live in a castle and that I was never, ever getting married (I was going to adopt the babies. This was the early 90’s so Angelina stole the idea from ME not the other way around). And I was going to be the most famous singer in the world and Whigfield would be queueing behind Ace of Bass for my autograph.

Sadly, we didn’t know about plastic the way we do now. Honestly, I didn’t fully appreciate just how much waste disposable nappies create. And in good conscience, I can’t continue to use disposables. Also, they won’t fit in our wheelie bin with all our regular rubbish because we have one of those tiny bins and if the lid’s open, the council won’t collect it.

I have a breastfed baby (11 months next week… amethyst boobies, here I come!) which is great in almost every way, except for one. You see, breastfed babies have the most sloppiest, liquidy, aromatic poo. And when they have allergies, their poo is even worse. We have allergies.

What can you do?

The thing is, breastfeeding and cloth nappies go hand-in-hand for a lot of people. I for one am absolutely not going to stop breastfeeding my baby just because his poo isn’t pretty enough. Apparently people do this. Crazy people.

There are several ways to deal with poo in a cloth nappy, and one of them is my favourite. Let’s look at them all:

  1. So the baby has pooed in your cloth nappy, now how do you clean it?
    – Scrape off as much of the poo as you can with tissue, a wet wipe, or something else disposable like an empty crisp packet, and dispose of as much of the solid poo as you can.
    – If it’s all mushed into the nappy, dangle it down your (clean) toilet and flush. Get the pooey bit under one of the main streams of water. If you’ve got good water pressure, this should rinse it nicely.
    – If there’s still a stubborn stain, soak for a couple of hours in a bucket, using non-bio detergent.
    – I’ve heard of people soaking their nappies in Napisan (bleach powder) in the bottom of the toilet, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that (and bleach powder apparently degrades the elastic and PU outers of reusable nappies) so I would use a bucket.
    – When the nappy has been soaked, fish it out, and run it through the washing machine on a cold wash.
    – After the cold wash, it should be ready to wash with the rest of your nappies.
  2. Should you use disposables during the day and cloth nappies at night time?
    This is one possibility, because it’s well-known (IDK if that makes it true) that babies can’t poo when they’re asleep. If it is true it has to be one of the coolest facts about the human body. So using the reusable cloth nappies at night time and using disposables during the day might work for you. However, since my baby uses more nappies during the day, and since cloth nappies can be very bulky, especially the two-part nappies with velcro fastenings, and since my baby insists on rolling onto his front during every nap, he isn’t comfortable in cloth nappies all night, so we use them during the day instead. Your mileage may vary.
  3. Nappy liners. The best thing since bamboo triple-layer inserts.
    These are my favourite long-term solution to the whole how to get rid of poo out of a reusable nappy issue. Basically, a company called Little Lamb (you may have heard of them) do these thin disposable nappy liners which come in a roll of 100. You put them between the baby and the cloth nappy, and… voila! No more poo! The nappy liner catches the poo and lets the urine soak into the nappy, so you don’t have to scrub out any more mashed chocolate mousse from your cloth nappies.
    These have completely changed our nappy situation and made my husband more confident about using the cloth nappies (he doesn’t like mess).
    Since we’ve started using these, a reusable nappy with poo in it is as easy to change as any other nappy. You simply pull out the liner, with the poo on top, and throw it in the bin (they’ve recently changed the description to say they’re not flushable), then put a new nappy on the baby.
    The liner itself is so thin, it’s like a tumble dryer sheet (but unscented, of course), so you can rest easy that you’re not contributing to the landfill problem in any meaningful way. Certainly not compared to disposables.
    I can see these being especially useful after lockdown ends, when we can go out again, because I wouldn’t want to be carrying around a dirty, poo-stained reusable nappy all day, waiting to take it home and wash. With these liners, that’s not a problem.

So that’s how to deal with poo in reusable nappies. Do you have any other tips for cleaning poo in a cloth nappy or avoiding poo in reusable nappies? Let me know in the comments.

 

Look at this baby with Covid-19. Still want to travel?

I honestly don’t know how anyone can look at this tiny 6-month-old baby in hospital, on a ventilator that’s too big for her so had to be taped over at the top, fighting to survive, and how, after seeing her, they can still contemplate making unnecessary journeys for stupid reasons. Her name is Erin Bates. Full article here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-52269084

In related news, I’m so angry at my Mother in Law and Father in Law right now. Yesterday they admitted they have been making several unnecessary 100-mile-round-trip journeys and so has my Sister in Law. Why? Because apparently renovating a house that she doesn’t even live in is more important than following the rules and staying at home.

This is the same sister in law who sent me a happy mother’s day card. There’s no weird Oedipal twist of incest, I’m not her mother, I didn’t marry my son. She just needed a reason to spread germs and put postal workers at risk delivering something to a different country.

I ripped it up when it arrived because Mother’s Day is hard for me. I know I was being a bit petty but you’d think people who had known me for 10 years would know how hard Mother’s Day is because my parents are dead.

They’re just so oblivious of other people.

Don’t travel. Stay at home. Look back at past travel photos. Plan future trips. Don’t kill other people by spreading this. So many people think it’s harmless if it’s just them. They’re putting themselves at risk, and they’re endangering others by spreading it before the symptoms show.