“When Jessica’s mum, Sandy, tries to take away the iPad, there’s a tantrum that threatens to go nuclear: wobbly lip, tears, hands balled into fists and a high-pitched wail. “She does this a lot,” says Sandy. “She seems to prefer the iPad to everything else. Sometimes it’s the only thing that will keep her quiet,” she adds, frantically waving a pink fluffy unicorn in an attempt to appease her daughter.
Like many parents, she’s worried about her child’s obsession with screens. And the concern among some experts is that these devices, if used in particular ways, could be changing children’s brains for the worse – potentially affecting their attention, motor control, language skills and eyesight, especially in under-fives, for whom so much brain development is taking place. Technology companies and app developers are throwing their marketing prowess at the problem, slapping words like “educational” and “e-learning” on their products, often without any scientific basis. So what are parents to do?
Few technologies have invaded our lives – and those of our children – as stealthily as the mobile computer, most commonly the smartphone or tablet. These devices are the right size for little hands to handle them, and the touchscreen’s easy for tiny fingers to manipulate. Plus there’s so much you can do on these devices: watch videos, play games, draw pictures and talk to relatives thousands of miles away.
In 2011, a year after the iPad launched, just 10 per cent of US children under the age of two were found to have used tablets or smartphones, but by 2013 that figure had nearly quadrupled. A 2015 study in France found that 58 per cent of under-twos had used a tablet or mobile phone. And yet there’s little clarity around the consequences of long-term use of such devices. So why don’t we know more about the risks of children using screens? Because there’s a fundamental problem at the basis of all the research in this area: what do we even mean by “screen time”?
First, it’s important to distinguish between types of screen: do we mean a television screen, a tablet, a smartphone or an e-reader? Second, the nature of the content matters: is it an interactive drawing game, an e-book, a Skype call with Grandma or a stream of Netflix Kids videos? Thirdly, there’s the context: is there a caregiver in the room talking to the child as they interact with the screen or are they left on their own?
To date, we have comprehensive research about children and television exposure, if not about interactive screens. However, there are a few things we do know. Most child development experts agree that while passive screen time – such as putting your child in front of a device for a Peppa Pig marathon – might be entertaining, it isn’t going to provide a rich learning experience. They also can show that having a video or TV on when a child is doing something else can distract them from play and learning, negatively affecting their development.
Hours of background TV has also been found to reduce child–parent interaction, which has an adverse impact on language development. And this displacement is a big concern: if kids are left with screen-based babysitters, then they are not interacting with caregivers and the physical world. There are only so many hours in a day, and the time spent with screens comes at the expense of other, potentially better, activities. Under-threes, in particular, need a balance of activities, including instructed play, exploring the natural environment,
manipulating physical toys and socialising with other children and grown-ups. The rise in screen use means less of all these things. The problem is that tablets are extremely appealing to children and adults alike. Thanks to their design, versatility and intuitive interfaces, tablets are a perfect way for children to draw, solve puzzles and be entertained on the move. Combine that with marketing efforts of digital media companies and app developers – whose measure of success tends to be the amount of time people are glued to their creation – and you have a toy that’s difficult to prise out of tiny hands.
What’s more, many apps are designed to be stimulus-driven, with exciting audiovisual rewards for completing tasks. Experts call this the “I did it!” response, which triggers the reward pathway in the brain. Because of this, tablets and smartphones make for excellent pacifiers, particularly on long plane journeys and in restaurants. But while this can be helpful in the short term, it’s important for young children to be able to develop internal mechanisms of self-regulation, whether that’s learning without constant rewards or being able to sit patiently without constant digital stimulation.
And there’s another hitch, says Dimitri Christakis, a director at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Anecdotally, he and others are starting to see younger and younger patients using these devices compulsively. “We know there’s such a thing as problematic internet use in older children and adolescents. It stands to reason that the same would happen with infants,” he says. And he’s doing research to find out more.
Ramirez’s results are startling. “Over stimulating babies primes them to become hyperactive for the rest of their life.” The theory is that over stimulating children with media – particularly in an age of tablets with endlessly streaming, hard-to-ration videos and flashy interactive games – may cause an imbalance in part of the cerebral cortex called the basal ganglia. It’s this part of the brain that allows us to pay attention to critical tasks and ignore distractions. Such overstimulation could lead to problems in later life, particularly with focus, memory and impulsivity.”
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