Lately, we’ve noticed that a number of our friends are letting their very young children — some aren’t even 1 year old yet! — spend a lot of time playing with a touch-screen electronic device. I’m amazed at how well these devices work at quieting down some otherwise very rambunctious little boys and girls, and there are educational “apps” available as well. Should we be thinking about getting a tablet for our toddler?
It already seems hard to remember a time when we didn’t have these little “smart” devices at our disposal. And for many children, this might literally be the case. A study released in October 2013 indicated that almost 40 percent of American children under the age of 2 have used a mobile device for games, watching videos, or other media-related activities. As the majority of children do not start to form “solid” memories prior to age 2, that means that many of today’s toddlers will not be able to remember a time before that iPad, Nook, Kindle, iPhone, Galaxy, Nexus, or other touch-screen device that they play with.
The big question is: does allowing a child to use these devices during such important developmental years have bad effects? And the answer is: we don’t know for sure yet. Smartphones and tablets have not been around for long enough to allow for large, academic studies on the long-term effects of their usage on an infant’s cognitive, emotional, and physical development.
However, anecdotal evidence, related studies, and recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that it is best to not allow an infant or young toddler to use a “smart” device — particularly if that device is intended to be used indefinitely as a “pacifier.” We know for sure that the brain is highly sensitive to stimuli from computer or smartphone screens, and screen addiction is already associated with increased risk of type-2 diabetes, particularly when an electronic device becomes a substitute for physical activity. Constant electronic device usage may also stunt children’s social development and increase their chances of conduct problems and emotional issues. Irritability or tantrums when the electronic device is taken away may be a warning sign. There are even examples of young children whose fine manual dexterity has been hindered over time by using touch screen devices instead of physically holding and playing with small objects such as crayons. This is one of the many reasons that the Academy has long recommended that children under the age of 2 avoid TV and entertainment media altogether, encouraging personal interaction with people instead.
Technology is rapidly evolving, and many devices and apps have made aspects of our lives easier and more convenient.
However, until we know more, it may be best to avoid incorporating “smart” devices into your child’s formative years. There will be plenty of time for him or her to play Angry Birds later in life.