• Dr. Timothy Smith

Smartphones, Tablets, and a Baby's Brain

Baby on Tablet

Photo Source: Modern Mami

Recently, while waiting in line at the grocery store, I saw a man shopping and pushing a cart with a toddler strapped into a portable car seat. The toddler remained quiet and intensely focused on a smartphone in her hands with a video playing. A decade ago, the toddler, instead of holding a smartphone, may have had a toy, a pacifier, a Sippy cup, a bag of Cheerios, or ring of keys to keep her happy and occupied while her parent did the shopping. For millennia, parents have provided toys to amuse and calm children, and just as many debates about the positive and negative effects of toys, games, screens and more have ensued. Screens and children, whether TV, computer, tablet, or phone, have always stirred controversy. Such controversy drove the American Academy of Pediatrics or the AAP to develop the 2X2 rule. The AAP first formed in 1930 by 35 concerned pediatricians with the intention to establish health guidelines for children in America. Today the Academy claims over 66,000 pediatricians in its membership, and strongly affects healthcare policy in the United States and Canada through guidelines, publications and education (aap.org). The AAP’s 2X2, rule released in 1999, just states, “No screens for children under the age of two and no more than two hours a day after the age of two.” In 2016, the AAP amended their recommendations for screen use for the very young.

“For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.” (aap.org)

In an article in the journal Pediatrics, titled “Media and Young Minds,” the authors explain the research that the AAP depended on to make their recommendations for very young children. (October 2016) The authors prefaced the work with “Children younger than two years need hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop their cognitive, language, motor, and social-emotional skills.” Moreover, they cite evidence from an article called “’Facetime doesn’t count’: video-chat as an exception to media restrictions for infants and toddlers” from the International Journal of Child Computer Interactions that children of all ages benefit from video chat such as Skype or Facetime to stay connected with geographically remote family members. (2016) Maintaining a cautious approach, AAP does not recommend other types of screen usage in very young children, citing evidence that screen exposure leads to less sleep. Additionally, the authors in 2016 noted a substantial lack of research in the area of the effects of digital media on early childhood learning and development.

More recent research on the effects of smartphones and tablets offers a mixed message. In a recent study conducted a The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, the leading investigator Dr. Catherine Birken, described that of the children she studied aged between 6 months and three years, 75% used a touchscreen on a daily basis. In her research first presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) Meeting in San Francisco, she noted that increasing time in front of smartphones and tablets correlated with a decrease in the development of expressive speech. She determined that every 30 minutes of screen time for the very young delayed speech development by 49%. Laura Donnelly, the Health Editor for The Telegraph, summarized research released in 2017 from the United Kingdom from the University of London in an article titled, “iPads could hinder babies' sleep and brain development, study suggests.” The research linked 16 minutes less sleep for toddlers for every hour spent on a touchscreen device. (telegraph.co.uk) In contrast, research from the same institution at the University of London known as the Birkbeck showed an improvement of fine motor skills in toddlers who regularly used touchscreens. Another study demonstrated that very young children could teach themselves new words using touchscreens.

The proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and computers over the past decade has put these devices in nearly every home in the United States and as research described in the hands of many children from a very early age. Concerned parents wonder what effects the new technology will have on the development of children. In response to new research, the AAP modified their 2X2 rule suggesting no screens for children under the age of 2 to no screens for children under the age of 18 months except for video chatting with relatives. In spite of the rapid expansion of smartphones and tablets, the research on the effects of these devices when given to the very young remains sparse and contradictory. Some evidence points to smartphones and tablets negatively affecting early development, but other studies indicate some beneficial learning effects such as for fine motor skills. Overall, the little research we have suggests that the youngest children should get very limited and supervised use of smartphones and tablets until more studies demonstrate the safety of such novel technologies. Even if it might seem easier, perhaps you should think twice before simply handing your device off to your child or infant.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.