Toddlers and touch screens: parents' helpers or 'digital candy'?

A small community survey found that the majority of young children use mobile devices. The verdict is still out on whether that's a good thing or not.

Gerald Herbert/AP/File
In this Friday, Oct. 21, 2011 photo, Frankie Thevenot, 3, plays with an iPad in his bedroom at his home in Metairie, La.

A small survey of 350 children, ages 6 months to 4 years old, found that almost all used mobile devices, with most starting before the age of 1.

The survey was conducted October through November 2014 at Einstein Medical Center in a low-income community in Philadelphia. According to what parents reported in the questionnaire, three-quarters of 4 year-olds had their own mobile device, such as smartphones, iPods, and tablets.

Many were given the device while parents did house chores (70 percent), to keep them calm (65 percent), and at bedtime (29 percent). Many used the devices daily, and the older ones without any help from their parents.

While the study focused on a small sample size in one specific community, the findings are in keeping with other studies examining the role of digital devices in the lives of young children.

"According to a Nielsen survey, some 80 percent of tablet-owning parents let their young children use their devices; found that 75 percent of moms regularly hand their smart phones to their toddlers," The Christian Science Monitor reported back in 2013. "Apps for preschoolers is one of the fastest growing categories in the Apple Store."

What the pervasive nature of touch screens might mean for children's development remains an open question. The authors of the latest paper, published last month in the journal Pediatrics, call for further studies to evaluate how mobile use affects child development, and for more informed technology guidelines for families.

“Little is known about how children’s independent activity on mobile devices affects their cognitive, social, and emotional development,” wrote study authors in their report Monday in the journal Pediatrics, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Einstein Medical Center’s 20-question survey was adapted from a 2013 nationwide survey by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that offers media content rankings and technology advice to parents and teachers.

Among the organization’s findings two years ago was that 72 percent of children 8 or younger used a mobile device in 2013, compared with 38 percent in 2011, reports The New York Times.

“That’s huge,” Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the survey, told the Times. “If children are sitting by themselves glued to digital candy, we simply don’t know what the consequences are for their early social development.”

While some see "huge potential in an 'app generation,' in some areas even advocating an iPad for every preschooler," others have expressed concerns about toddlers becoming "fixated, zombielike, on a flat rectangular screen," according to the Monitor. 

"But the good news for parents is that even the staunchest critics of toddlers using tablets have ideas for how to best integrate technology into family life. While experts say there is no one-size-fits-all approach to touch screens, there are strategies agreed upon by most child advocates from all sides of the touch-screen divide about bringing up a healthy app generation."

The American Academy of Pediatrics had previously recommended that children younger than 2 stay screen-free, but lately has eased its recommendation, advising the setting of time limits, prioritizing traditional, off-screen play and urging parents to avoid using electronic devices to calm toddlers.

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