Seminars in Pediatrics 2019

More and more children are accessing and using digital media. This early adoption of technology has led to new challenges for parents and pediatricians alike. Stressed parents tend to look to their child’s physician for guidance around media use.

Seminars in Pediatrics keynote speaker Jenny Radesky, MD (center) with course directors Kathleen Kastner, MD (left) and Kristin Shadman, MD (right)
Seminars in Pediatrics keynote speaker Jenny Radesky, MD (center) with course directors Kathleen Kastner, MD (left) and Kristin Shadman, MD (right)

The 2019 Seminars in Pediatrics, hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Pediatrics, featured keynote speaker, Jenny Radesky, MD, an Assistant Professor in the Division of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Michigan. Dr. Radesky’s research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction.

Over two days, she presented strategies on how to discuss media use with families in a clinic setting, as well as, highlighting the good, the bad, and the unknown of digital media.

Clinic-based Guidance

In Dr. Radesky’s first keynote address, she provided strategies for discussing media use with parents in the clinic. One of her studies included in-depth interviews with families of young children. The purpose was to get parent perspectives around new mobile technologies. This study established three main themes that physicians can address when providing guidance around media use.

When conducting these interviews, Dr. Radesky realized that parents liked to talk about their worries surrounding mobile technology. She suggested that other pediatricians use this as a conversation starter with parents. We all are overwhelmed and confused about media use. Urge parents to be thoughtful about what media they and their children are using. The technology should align with their human values. What do they want their children to get out of the technology?

Dr. Radesky provided the following strategies to address these three themes:

  1. Fear of missing out vs. concerns about effects of technology

There has always been skepticism around the educational value of media. Dr. Radesky explained that pediatricians should review the science about what technology can and cannot teach children.

Previous research has shown that young children, 18-24 months and younger, are not able to learn from media. However, children 2.5-5 years can learn some skills, but are unable to learn important life skills. If parents are concerned about technology use in schools, advise them to talk with their child’s teacher about what kinds of apps or products they are using in their curriculum. Overall, in early childhood, media should be consumed with a parent and should not take the place of other healthy activities.

  • Other locus of control

The overwhelming nature of digital media can cause parents to feel out of control. When this is the case be sure to provide credible resources and concrete suggestions for digital media use.

Resources include:

  • Function media serves for the stressed family

When faced with questions about media use always have alternatives for parents. One easy alternative that Dr. Radesky suggested was changing the content that children are viewing. Such as, switching to something that has more prosocial content, such as Sesame Street or PBS Kids. She also recommended using media as a tool to teach both child and parent self-regulation. Parents can even use digital media as a way to come with new play ideas.

The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown of Digital Media Use

On the second day of the 2019 Seminars in Pediatrics, Dr. Radesky spoke about her research on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. There is still a lot of uncertainty around digital media use, is it helping or harming? Research on digital media can be used to inform the guidance discussed in her first keynote address. Dr. Radesky surveyed the research landscape by summarizing the good, the bad, and the unknown of digital media use.


Teach parents how to find quality digital content

  • Carefully designed content can improve developmental outcomes. Examples of well-designed content include Sesame Street, Between the Lions, and Blue’s Clues.

Encourage at least some conversation and co-viewing

  • As previously mentioned, young children have a hard time learning from digital media. To combat this issue, previous research has suggested that parents co-view and scaffold content from screen-based teaching.

Encourage media that supports human values and connection

  • The ability to connect with family members through video-chat can also have a positive impact on children when done alongside a parent. One study found that children at 24 months could learn new words via Skype and at 15 months they can share visual attention.


Teach parents about manipulative designs, and empower them not to use them

  • All technology is designed to keep the user engaged for as long as possible. Children fall victim to these designs by being drawn in through rewards, autoplay, and attention-grabbing features. These apps are also collecting data about the user for advertising purposes.

Avoid use at bedtimes, playtimes, mealtimes and other opportunities for parent-child interaction or distress tolerance

  • Digital media use has been associated with poor sleep. Parents are encouraged to restrict media use before and during bedtime. Other studies have shown that a parent’s use of mobile technology can inhibit parent-child interaction whether that is during playtime or mealtime. All family members are encouraged to avoid digital media use during these times.

Unknown: important concepts to review with parents


  • Using an app’s persuasive design is easy. A child’s brain does not have to do much of the work during digital play. The child will then displace things such as creative play. Parents should understand what aspects of a child’s life that digital media is taking over.

The persuasive design of digital media is making parenting harder

  • One study observed 15 parent-preschooler pairs play either with traditional toys and their tablets. The study found that when children played with a tablet they created solitary spaces forcing parents to take the role of a bystander. Is digital media making parenting harder?

Be intentional when using a new digital product

  • Parents and children alike don’t fully understand the nature of data collection when it comes to digital media. Previous research has shown that young children have a unique understanding of robot toys. They view them as life-like leading to issues regarding privacy.

Ultimately, parents have consumer buying power. They should not settle for harmful digital products and should demand better digital media for their kids.

Dr. Jenny Radesky Keynote Address
Dr. Jenny Radesky Keynote Address

Pediatricians have the opportunity to address the challenges of digital media use in the clinic. At the 2019 Seminars in Pediatrics, Dr. Radesky provided strategies and research that can empower physicians to provide guidance around media use.

“When you see this in the office, I think it’s always worth talking about. It’s a teachable moment,” Dr. Radesky concluded.

Seminars in Pediatrics was sponsored by the UW School of Medicine and Public Health Department of Pediatrics, the UW Health American Family Children’s Hospital and the UW-Madison Interprofessional Continuing Education Partnership.