Last week, the Today Show discussed research regarding infants and touchscreen devices and increased learning. As an early childhood advocate, I have to urge caution when it comes to technology and children. This report by Professor Annette Karmiloff-Smith - who also led the research –claims that babies should be given tablet computers 'from birth'. Did this inflammatory statement get your attention? It sure got mine. Let's look a bit deeper into the development of young children before we run off to buy the newborn a little black box.

 The actual study by Karmiloff-Smith has not been published yet so it is unclear exactly what this study was trying to prove. Going off of the abstract published in the Daily Mail UK, we can see the major claim is that babies learn "faster" when engaged with lights and sounds from a screen; they quickly learn to swipe and pinch to make things happen in front of them. This may be true. We see it daily as parents hand over the phone or tablet to children to entertain them while driving or in the grocery store. However, what is the trade off? The claim is that babies are more "interested" in the screen than a traditional book. The child's focus is directed to the lights and sounds from the screen, often to the exclusion of everything else. The wiring in the brain is actually being changed to fire faster to keep up with all the lights and sounds. In comparison, while reading a traditional book to children, adults are cuddling, talking, making eye contact, and responding to the child's cues. Children learn in active relationship with others. There is an abundance of research supporting the need for infants and young children to form secure human attachments and play with others in order to thrive. Secure bonds with others lay the foundation so that children can try new things, fail - and then try again. This repetitive activity helps children master basic skills.

It is also important to remember the child's health as a whole. The American Academy of Pediatrics has published three recommendations regarding young children and media.

  1. Limit children's media time
  2. Discourage television and screen time among children less than two years of age
  3. Encourage alternative entertainment for children.

Additional research on this topic by the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding young children interacting with media of all sorts addresses the overall health and development impacts of too much media.

An excerpt from the AAP study says "... pediatricians almost universally believe that children's media use negatively affects children in many different areas, including children's aggressive behavior, eating habits, physical activity levels, risk for obesity, high-risk behaviors, and school performance."

The AAP research is what guides current Texas child care licensing standards (2010) for TV/screen time in child care facilities. This is what the standards say:

(a) Activities using TV/video, computer, or video games are prohibited for children under the age of two years.
(b) TV/video, computer, or video games may be used to supplement, but may not be used to replace, the activities for children ages two years and older provided as described in §746.2507 of this title (relating to What activities must I provide for toddlers?); §746.2607 of this title (relating to What activities must I provide for pre-kindergarten-age children?); and §746.2707 of this title (relating to What activities must I provide for school-age children?).
(c) If you use TV/video, computer or video games as an activity for children, you must ensure that they:

(1) Are related to the planned activities;
(2) Are age-appropriate; and
(3) Do not exceed two hours per day.

In summary, the AAP recommends:

  • For children two years and older, limiting children's total media time to not more than one to two hours of quality programming per 24-hour period
  • For children under the age of two no media time is recommended since during the first two years of life children's brains and bodies are going through critical periods of growth and development. It is important that very young children have positive social interactions with their parents and caregivers instead of through media time that takes away from these vital interactions.
  • Studies have shown a relationship between television viewing and increased risk for obesity in children.

 

It will be interesting to see a longitudinal study on screen use and the claim for "learning faster".

Technology is here to stay. Our young children will need to know how to navigate the varied ways to interface with technology; however, we must remember the basics. Human brains are "wired" for interpersonal connections which create a sense of trust and security. It is our role as caring adults to step back, think about what children are actually learning and what they are not. What is ultimately in the best interest of your children long-term is a decision that fits with your family.