Jessica’s tiny fingers dart around the iPad, swiping through photos to get to a particularly entertaining video: a 12-second clip of her dancing clumsily to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies. The 18-month-old taps “play” and emits a squeal of delight.
After watching the video twice, she navigates back to the home screen and opens up the YouTube app to watch an episode of the colourful animation Billy Bam Bam. Halfway through, she moves onto a Yo Gabba Gabba! game, which involves anthropomorphized fruits making their way into a character’s belly.
When Jessica’s mom, Sandy, tries to take away the iPad, there’s a tantrum that threatens to go nuclear: wobbly lip, tears, hands balled into fists and a high-pitched wail. “She does this a lot,” says Sandy. “She seems to prefer the iPad to everything else. Sometimes it’s the only thing that will keep her quiet,” she adds, frantically waving a pink fluffy unicorn in an attempt to appease her daughter.
Like many parents, she’s worried about her child’s obsession with screens. She wants to know which activities are best, and how much time spent on screens is too much. [...]
The concern among some experts is that these devices, if used in particular ways, could be changing children’s brains for the worse—potentially affecting their attention, motor control, language skills and eyesight, especially in under-fives, for whom so much brain development is taking place.[...]
Few technologies, however, have invaded our lives—and those of our children—as stealthily as the mobile computer, most commonly the smartphone or tablet. These devices are the right size for little hands to handle them, and the touchscreens easy for tiny fingers to manipulate. Plus there’s so much you can do on these devices: watch videos, play games, draw pictures and talk to relatives thousands of miles away.[...]
There’s little clarity around the consequences of long-term use of such devices. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has erred on the side of caution, recommending absolutely no screen time for children under the age of two, and a two-hour daily limit for those older. These restrictions simply don’t tally with how many people are integrating these devices into their children’s lives, nor do they reflect the fact that some interactions with screens might actually be beneficial.
“If your child is under two and is exposed to a screen it’s not going to be toxic to their brain: they won’t be turned into idiots,” says Michael Rich, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and an AAP member. “But there are potential downsides…and parents need to make a series of risk–benefit analyses.” The AAP is now in the process of revising its guidelines, and they are due to be published in late 2016. [...]
Having a video or TV on when a child is doing something else can distract them from play and learning, negatively affecting their development. Hours of background TV has also been found to reduce child–parent interaction, which has an adverse impact on language development. This displacement is a big concern: If kids are left with screen-based babysitters then they are not interacting with caregivers and the physical world. There are only so many hours in a day, and the time spent with screens comes at the expense of other, potentially better, activities.[....]
Many apps are designed to be stimulus-driven, with exciting audiovisual rewards for completing tasks. Christakis refers to this as the “I did it!” response, which triggers the reward pathway in the brain. “The delight a child gets from touching a screen and making something happen is both edifying and potentially addictive,” he says.
Because of this, tablets and smartphones make for excellent pacifiers, particularly on long plane journeys and in restaurants. “The device itself is seen as a pleasurable source of comfort and parents play into that,” says Christakis.
“It’s pretty common,” says Jenny Radesky, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan. “It becomes the go-to, easiest tool the parent is using.” Although helpful in the short term, it’s important for young children to be able to develop internal mechanisms of self-regulation, whether that’s learning without constant rewards or being able to sit patiently without constant digital stimulation.
Christakis says that, anecdotally, he and others are starting to see younger and younger patients using these devices compulsively. “We know there’s such a thing as problematic Internet use in older children and adolescents, and it stands to reason that the same would happen with infants,” he says. And he’s doing research to find out more about this.[...]
In California, Maria Liu heads up the Myopia Control Clinic at UC Berkeley’s School of Optometry. She’s seen a sharp increase in young children with myopia (shortsightedness). “It’s increasing at an alarming rate worldwide and a well-accepted contributing factor is the early introduction of handheld devices to kids.” [...]
The other problematic aspect of screens is that they have been shown to disrupt sleep. The blue light emitted by the super-sharp displays can interfere with our natural bodily rhythms, preventing melatonin, an important sleep hormone, from being released. This in turn can lead to sleep impairments in adults and children alike. Sandy says that if Jessica uses the tablet before bed she gets “noticeably riled up”. So, she says, they try to use books instead. This issue is why the latest version of Apple’s software for iPads and iPhones comes with “Night Shift”, which automatically swaps the blueish light for a warmer hue before bedtime. [...]
Even if apps are found to have educational value, toddlers still learn better from experiences in the real world than they do from equivalent two-dimensional representations on screen. Studies in the U.S. have shown that when dealing with visual–spatial problems, such as finding hidden objects or solving puzzles, toddlers (under around 30 months) perform much better when the problem is presented in real life rather than onscreen.[...]
Instead of banning devices, we should be demanding better apps built on solid research. For children aged between three and five, it’s entirely possible that a well-designed app can help improve vocabulary and basic math skills. “My youngest is speech-delayed, and the videos he watches have definitely helped him learn new words,” says Lisa, a mother of four- and six-year-old sons who have been using mobile technology since they were 18 months old.[...]
All of the pediatricians, child development and education specialists I spoke to agreed that, for children under 30 months, there is no substitute for human interaction. So why not develop apps that act as mediators between infant and caregiver? BedTime Math is one example. The app delivers engaging math story problems for parents and their children. It is one of the few tools that have been shown to make kids smarter; children who used the app even just once a week for a year improved their math by more than a control group did. The impact was particularly strong for children whose parents were anxious about math.
With so much focus on what children are doing, it’s easy for parents to forget about their own screen use. “Tech is designed to really suck you in,” says Radesky, “and digital products are there to promote maximal engagement. It makes it hard to disengage, and leads to a lot of bleed-over into the family routine.”[...]
“The extent to which parents are tied up with these devices in ways that disrupt the interactions with the child has potential for a far bigger impact,” says Heather Kirkorian, who heads up the Cognitive Development & Media Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If I’m on the floor with a child but checking my phone every five minutes, what message does that send?” How much parents play with and talk to their kids is a very powerful predictor of how the kids will develop, she adds.
Radesky has studied the use of mobile phones and tablets at mealtimes by giving mother–child pairs a food-testing exercise. She found that mothers who used devices during the exercise started 20 percent fewer verbal and 39 percent fewer nonverbal interactions with their children. During a separate observation of 55 caregivers eating with one child or more, she saw that phones became a source of tension in the family. Parents would be looking at their emails while the children would be making excited bids for their attention.
“You would see parents losing it and raising their voices because it’s extremely irritating to be focusing on something and have a child escalate their requests for attention,” she explains, adding that some parents would do things like shove their child’s hand away. Restricting the use of devices at critical family moments such as mealtimes and before bed can help reduce these frictions and encourage more face-to-face conversations.
Infants are wired to look at parents’ faces to try to understand their world, and if those faces are blank and unresponsive—as they often are when absorbed in a device—it can be extremely disconcerting for the children. Radesky cites the “still face experiment”, which was devised by developmental psychologist Ed Tronick in the 1970s. In it, a mother is asked to interact with her child in a normal way before putting on a blank expression and not giving them any visual social feedback. As the video shows, the child becomes increasingly distressed as she tries to capture her mother’s attention.[...]
“As a mum, I put my 18-month-old in front of an HBO baby poetry video,” says Radesky. “It’s cute and calm and I can wash the dishes or do something that’s a reset for me. That’s a benefit, but it’s something parents need to be very honest about. The video is not educating my 18-month-old. It’s a break for me as a parent.”