What electronic devices do to toddlers

By on October 3, 2015


Emil Protalinski of Next Web reports that global sales of tablets in the second quarter of 2013 reached 51.7 million units, a sharp rise of 43 percent from 35.1 million in the same quarter of 2012. This means that more and more households are buying touch screen tablets.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has repeatedly warned parents not to expose kids under two years of age to screens.  Research suggests it harms language development and can interfere with sleep. It’s a rule most parents break. Nearly every child I know reaches out for smartphones and tablets to play with.  Most parents hand them over in a heartbeat just to keep them amused.

When a child pokes the screen, it does something fascinating that makes them get easily hooked. Some experts argue that these screens are different from the traditional TV because of its interactive capability. But are tablets really good for kids?  The two-word answer is ‘Who knows’? No one really knows because there hasn’t been time to conduct a research.

What scientists do know is that baby brains grow dramatically.  At birth, each baby brain cell has about 2,500 synapses or connections to other brain cells. Around age three, the typical brain cell has 15,000 connections because of the baby’s ability to learn. The AAP argues that there’s no reason to take chances with that development. Even if there’s no evidence that screen time is bad for baby brains, there’s also no evidence that it does anything to promote healthy growth.

Until we have evidence that screen time is good for babies and toddlers, access to technology should be limited and thoughtfully supervised by parents. Since you can’t see what’s happening in your baby’s brain, you’ll need other indicators to be sure development is taking place normally.

Early childhood experts say deep connection with parents is crucial during the first two years of life. Early interactions, in which children learn to make and break eye contact, or to take turns making sounds, become the foundation for emotional intelligence. Having face to face fun with your baby sets up a lifelong assumption that interacting with people is rewarding for its own sake.

Research done in the 1990s demonstrated that babies who hear around 2,000 words per hour do better in school and even have higher IQ’s. That’s because the language centers of the brain are especially absorbent during the first three years. Recorded words don’t make much of an impression. Language needs to be tailored to the child, responsive both to what she is doing and her emotions. Parents, of course, aren’t the only ones who should be talking to babies. Be sure other caregivers are aware of how important it is to use language with children who seem like they are too young to understand.

Babies and toddlers figure out the world by picking things up, chewing on them, poking, throwing, rolling and stacking them. Not only is this fun, it gives your child the basis for concepts like sound and flat, fuzzy and smooth. A touch screen may reference these ideas but it takes lots of real life experience to get them fixed firmly in the brain. Healthy babies are always reaching and exploring. Most of what they find should stimulate multiple senses.

Boston’s Center on Media and Child Health director Michael Reich has stated that the visual stimuli of many apps  gives children a regular squirt of dopamine, a brain chemical that creates a feeling of pleasure. Too much of this can create cravings that hook babies in which even adults can’t resist.

Is your child able to settle down for quiet time and sleeping? Because baby brains are growing so rapidly, they can easily become overstimulated. Being able to settle and sleep peacefully is a lifelong skill, and most parents intuitively help little children calm down by gentle rocking, singing and stroking. Research indicates that the light emitted by screens stimulates brain waves in ways that interfere with sleep, so screen time should never be part of a baby’s bedtime routine.

No matter what you say, young children will mimic what you do. If you are too engaged to your devices – checking e-mail when out and about with your baby, texting during playtime, your child will mimic your behaviour.  Your baby giggles and you repeat whatever you did to make her laugh. Your toddler says something that sounds like “Mama” and you happily. This exchange between a child and you is important.

The next time your little toddler throws tantrums, handing over a smartphone or tablet to have  a moment of calmness, think again. It is not love.

About Julie Wilson