Lisa Guernsey’s 13 minute TEDx Talk on the impacts of screen time on children

If you’re wondering why there’s growing concern about the impact of “screen time” on children, especially those under three, you may want to devote 13 minutes to watch a TEDx Talks[1]How the iPad affects young children, and what we can do about it (TEDxMidAtlantic, April 27, 214).

The speaker on the stage is Lisa Guernsey, Director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative. A decade ago she was a technology and education reporter for the New York Times. She also wrote a book on how media affects children (Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child).

If you’re not clicking right now to the Internet to listen to Lisa, here’s the gist of her remarks. As parents (and she is one), we should pay attention to how children understand the omnipresent screens in their lives─ iPADs, smart phones, computers and television. Lisa calls out some key questions she and others have about screen time: Will it affect children’s’ attention span? How will children come to understand the world around them through screens?

“Children see things a little differently than we do,” Lisa reminds us. She shares some compelling examples of how we know this from the research world. For example, research informs us that young children think that popcorn will come pouring out of a television if you turn it upside down when it’s showing popcorn on the screen. From this and other research we know that children up until about two and a half to three years old react to screen “reality” differently than older folks.[2]

Lisa says there are three “C’s” we should pay attention to in interacting with the screens in our children’s lives: content, context, and the children themselves.

  • There should be good content that children can learn from. The content should contain the same aspects we would seek in a good preschool teacher: 1) focuses on learning and engaging the child, 2) says things more than once (repeats messages) for more effective learning, 3) provides chances for pause to allow the child time to react to what is being said, and 4) contains no violence or aggression because young children often imitate what they see.
  • Context is about how the child is interacting with the media. The parent should engage with the child as the child engages with the media ─ to ask the child questions and explain what’s being presented.
  • Children is about how to interact with your own child, knowing the ways he/she reacts, taking into consideration the particular needs and interests of the child.

Lisa offers us an interesting idea for thought, in addition to her call for attention to the three C’s. What if every family had a media mentor, someone who could talk to our children about what they’re seeing? This could be a preschool teacher, child librarian, childcare provider, or even parent. Her thinking is, even if we follow the three Cs, by the time a child is around nine, screen time is all around them. It seems best then to put serious attention on managing this growing presence ─ to learn from media and apply this learning to the wider world.

While many commentators are calling right now for restricting screen time for children, especially under three years old, Lisa focuses on better managing the child-to-screen relationship to benefit learning. I take heart that a former technology and education news reporter who continues to write and think about media impacts on children’s’ lives – and indeed all our lives – thinks that we have a major force to be reckoned with – the media. And here we are with our own “screen” choices on this topic ─ able to view a free online presentation on a screen through TEDx Talks if your preference is audio/visual; or to read a blog on a website if your preference is reading for information. However we prefer to acquire information and share our thinking, it’s clear that screen time is an important ─ indeed a vital part of our “real” world.

I don’t know at what precise age children realize that popcorn is not going to come out of the television if you turn it upside down when popcorn is depicted on the screen, but it’s clearly our job to help them sort through what is in the screen and what is not. I’m a fan of Lisa’s three Cs: let’s focus on good screen content, the context for using screens well, and adapting to the needs and interests of our children. And if media mentors can help families make best use of the omnipresent screens in our world, I’m all for it.


[1] From TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global set of conferences run by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “Ideas Worth Spreading.” TED’s early emphasis was technology and design but it has broadened its focus to include talks addressing a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture, often through storytelling. Speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can. As of April 2014, over 1,700 talks were freely available on the website; and as of Nov. 2012, TED talks had been watched over one billion times worldwide. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized though subject to certain rules and regulations.

[2] If you want to learn more about why folks are focusing on birth to 24-30 months in a child’s development, check out my blog from Dec. 27, 2913, “Looking into “screen” time for children ─ impacts on reading at: <>