Updated January 20, 2020
by Ronaldo Tumbokon
Tablets and smartphones are great gadgets for making kids busy and quiet, especially for harassed parents who has more urgent things to do than attending to their kids. They can also be a great bribery tool. Parents use it to make kids behave, sit quietly in a car ride, get into a stroller, or even go into the potty. But there are some parenting experts who say that using screen time as bribery or enticements may have trade-offs.
Parenting gurus, psychologists and even advice columnists are wary about the effects of iPads, iPhones, Androids and other gadgets with touchscreen on children under 3 who use them. They believe that screen time may have a negative effect on children’s developing brain.
But the tendency to be alarmist usually happens when a new form of media becomes popular with children. When video games came out, pundits are afraid that these might make kids violent, and TV was once blamed for harming kids’ visions. But are worries about touchscreens warranted? What could possibly be the bad effects of young children playing with tablets and smartphones? Or does it actually have benefits, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the experts?
Because tablets and smartphones are still new, pediatric research still do not have a lot of data to make a clear and consistent stand on the issue. Although many studies suggest that there may be a link between screen time and children’s brains, it is still “premature” to say that there is a direct effect. Still, the “red flags” cannot be ignored – although we have to keep in mind that huge risks can sometimes be balanced by huge rewards.
(Note that some experts combine watching TV with interactive smartphone and tablet play as screen time. They are different, as watching TV is a much more passive activity than playing with touch screens.)
Here are the current pros and cons of letting your child play with touchscreen devices, coming from early researches and scientific studies on the subject, as well as opinions of child development experts:
Bad Effects of Tablets and Smart Phones
- The World Health Organization in 2019, echoing the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016, recommends that children between 2 and 5 should be limited to one hour of screen time per day, and lesser is better. This is not because screens are themselves dangerous to children. But a child’s preoccupation with the screen robs her of time to be physically active and get much needed sleep. Physical activity and exercise offers a lot of benefits needed for a child’s physical and mental development.
- During the child’s first years, his brain develops rapidly, and very young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens. Being head down and having no eye contact with people might be harmful to their brain development.
- Screens distract one or two year olds from interacting with parents, siblings and other kids. Dan Siegel of Mindful Awareness Research Center thinks this may impede language, social and emotional development. It may affect children’s development of insights, empathy, ways of knowing themselves, and connecting with relationships. Also a study suggests that mobile phone use can delay expressive language in 19-month olds.
- A study published in 2020 that involved MRI scans of brains of children 3 to 5 years old found those who used screens more than the recommended one hour a day without parental involvement had disorganized and lower levels of development in the brain’s white matter – an area key to language, literacy and cognitive skill development. According to Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, “This is important because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years. That’s when brains are very plastic and soaking up everything, forming these strong connections that last for life.” Again what is theorized as the cause of this negative effect is that screen time got in the way of activities important for the brain’s development.
- Also, toddlers need to be active physically. They should be actively exploring their environment, and not sedentary, getting almost all of stimulations from screen, and not building their bodies through physical play. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) do not recommend screen time for kids younger than 2.
- A 2019 study made by The University of Calgary psychologists and published in the JAMA journal Pediatrics found that greater screen time at 2 years old was associated with poorer performance on motor, communication and problem-solving skills at 3 years old, and greater screen time at 3 years old result in lower scores on these development tests at 5 years old. The lead author, Sheri Madigan stated that “A lot of the positive stimulation that helps kids with their physical and cognitive development comes from interactions with caregivers. When they’re in front of their screens, these important parent-child interactions aren’t happening.” The study suggests that screen time is not inherently bad, it just replaces a child’s being able to practice skills necessary for their developmental milestones.
- The American Heart Association expert panel suggests that screen time could contribute to a child’s future heart disease. Spending too much time with screens makes a child sedentary, which is associated with being overweight and obese. Obesity tend to continue into adulthood, and is a risk factor for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a variety of serious diseases.
- Babies and toddlers learn better with materials they can touch, versus what they see on a screen. Exploring concepts in three dimensions is better than two dimensions for cognitive development.
- Studies suggest that children ages 3 to 5 whose parents read to them through electronic books had lower reading comprehension compared to physical books. Part of the reason is because the bells and whistles from books in electronic devices distract the kids and parents from focusing on the story. On the other hand, another study shows that 2-year-old learned words faster with an interactive app than one that is passive.
- Doctors are concerned that over-exposure to screen has an impact on attention span and concentration, as well as appetite control.
- Tablets and smart phones take time away from other activities. Older children should have more time with playing outdoors, reading, engaging in hobbies, or using their imagination with free play.
- A 2014 study by UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center suggests that when screen time limits face-to-face interaction, kids’ social skills may be negatively affected, and this may blind them from understanding the emotions of other people. Social and emotional intelligence are critical to success in life.
- According to Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated clinical psychologist, children “need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.” This is not what happens when children would rather play with tablets and smart phones while in a car ride.
- Low-achieving and low-income school kids are more vulnerable to screen distractions, according to a University of Texas study measuring students passing a compulsory end-of-term exam. On the other hand, high ability students are still able to concentrate with the presence of smartphones.
- Children who sleep near a “small screen” (typically a smartphone) average 20.6 fewer minutes of sleep every night. This may be caused by the high levels of blue light emitted by the screens which depletes melatonin, a hormone linked to circadian rhythm. The extra screen time at night are resetting their bodies’ clocks in a way that makes it difficult for them to sleep, especially if they are just entering or are in the early stages of puberty. This results in lack of sleep and insufficient rest. Although The American Academy of Opthalmology says that blue light from smartphone is not blinding users despite a number of scary headlines suggesting that it could damage the retina of the eye, blue light can make it harder to fall asleep, and can cause dry eyes.
- According to this article, there seems to be an epidemic of myopia or increase in visual problems that is happening, and smartphones may be to blame.
- Children who use smartphones and other devices in their free time for less than two hours a day performed better on cognitive tests assessing their thinking, language and memory, according to a 2018 study published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. Children between 8 and 11 who get at least an hour of physical activity and no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day and nine to 11 hours of sleep each night perform better in thinking, language and memory tests.
- Preliminary results from the 2018 National Institute of Health study showed that screen time may be affecting the structure of the brains of children who are heavy device and media users – specifically, it found a pattern of thinning of the brain’s cortex, typically associated with aging, although it was not clear if this was actually caused by screen time. Another study from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Center has “found evidence” that children between 3 and 5 who get more screen time than doctors recommend have changes in the white matter of the brain, which affects language and self-regulation.
- A study suggests that even moderate use of four hours on phones and social media is associated with lower psychological well-being than one hour a day. On the other hand, another study has found that there’s little evidence to support a linkage, correlational or causal, between adolescents’ digital technology usage and mental health symptoms.
- Children who are still naive and whose critical thinking is not developed may end up being influenced and victimized by false information and videos on the internet. An extreme case on how false information online can turn dangerous is the story of how two kids ended up attempting to murder their friend after immersing themselves online with the Slenderman urban legend
Good Effects of Tablets and Smart Phones
Some studies and experts are already questioning the popular belief that small children should not be allowed to use any touch-screen because of their benefits:
- Screen time helps kids unwind.
- Kids develop an aptitude for technology, which is an important skill now and more so in the future. Technology will be a part of his school learning. It is reasonable for your kid to explore this world at an early age. Your child may even be curious about what’s behind technology and be interested in learning to code, which has many benefits.
- Tablets and smart phones offer an opportunity for your child to learn and stimulate his mind in a fun way. Dr. Seuss’s ABC app, for example, looks great on the iPad, and sounds awesome too.
- Used in a quality way, screens can actually be used to promote babies’ cognitive and social development. Quality means being involved in your child’s use of screen, watching and talking about what he is seeing or doing.
- Tablets can be powerful educational tools. For example, iPads are great reading tools. Compared to kids who only use books, kids who learn to read on iPads are more engaged, cooperative and willing to speak up, according to a researcher from the Institute of Education in London. Screen not inherently good or bad, but what’s on it.
- Older kids can learn from watching or reading educational content in smartphones and tablets. These gadgets can actually be a window to the world, which expose them to a variety of knowledge, culture and way of thinking
- Tablets and smartphones are also tools for your child to communicate. Skyping or Facetiming with friends or relatives is a great use of screens. Indeed, video chatting has benefits for kids, even those younger than 2, as it helps forge emotional relationships and communication with long-distance family members. For teens, communicating via the screen to form online relationships is an important part of developing as an adolescent.
- Kids can establish and strengthen interpersonal relationships via social media.
- For more details on the benefits of playing educational apps for babies and toddlers, click here.
- Kids whose parents limit screen time do worse in college, probably because of helicopter parenting which makes kids cannot handle college experience a taste of freedom and responsibility.
Also, in addition to benefits, there are a couple of studies that suggest that screen time does not harm kids at all:
- An Oxford University study looking at more than 355,000 people suggests that screen time isn’t harming kids at all, and has close no effect on kids’ psychological health – does not make them depressed, more suicidal, selfish, or isolated, contrary to claims of some child experts.
- Another study from the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health in UK concluded that the evidence for time in front of a screen has a negative effect on children is so weak that it could not recommend a universal cut-off for specific forms of screen time (although screen time should not displace physical and social activities and sleep). Therefore, parents should stop worrying about screen time.
In conclusion, the reason why it is complicated to determine if screen time is either good or bad is because there are a variety of ways kids use “screen time” – from texting friends, to using social media, to learning stuff in videos and using Google to do research – that’s why studies that determine bad or good often ends with “it depends”. It is much better to evaluate specific uses of screen time, rather than look at just screen time as a whole.
Also, kids and teens lives can be complex, and it is not always valid to generalize that a study applies to a variety of variables at work in a particular environment.
It seems that screen time dedicated to just watching TV and videos are the most detrimental, especially with babies and kids 3 and younger who are still developing their brains through social interaction and problem-solving. Children 3 to 5, however, can benefit from quality TV shows especially meant to educate children.
Too much screen time may be bad, as well as too little, considering how kids use it to work, play, and socialize. The right amount and quality of screen time appropriate to the kids’ age should be beneficial.
To maximize the good effects of tablet and smart phone use of your kids, and to minimize if not completely avoid the bad effects, learn how to manage your child’s screen time.
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Little girl’s screentime photo courtesy of r. nial bradshaw