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It’s an increasingly common observation: small people scarcely able to independently wiggle their thumbs glued to a parent’s smart device, bent over it intently, oblivious to the rest of the world. This is an obvious boon to moms and dads, who find this portable babysitter always effective in occupying their kids. But are smart phones and tablets for toddlers a bad thing?

In a recent study, the Center for Toddler Development at Barnard College tested toddlers for “distractability” by calling the names of children playing with iPads and seeing what happened. This center includes a preschool for children ages 18 months to 36 months and the children who participated in this study were enrolled in the school. Researchers found that many of the kids were so zoned in that they didn’t respond to their names at all. But once the iPads were removed, the toddlers became more verbal, social and more creative in their environments.

Children’s play becomes more elaborate and creative as they develop. But this development takes practice with social play and growing vocabulary. Without opportunities to play with each other about imagined scenarios, children lose their natural ability for creative problem solving and their intellectual development is stunted. The lead researcher of the Barnard College study noted that if parents use their devices as distraction to calm upset children, those children are less likely to learn how to calm themselves and to control their own behavior.

We know that screen-devices do not emit harmful rays that scramble a child’s brain. And we know that screen-devices don’t harm a child’s eyesight or have any other direct negative effects. But that’s not to say that screen-devices are harmless. In fact, to the extent that screen-devices replace social play, reduce time available for creative thinking, and keep kids from active, physical play those devices interfere with the development of essential brain capacities and unrecoverable intellectual skills.

Children who spend much of their early childhoods interacting with electronic devices may have less thinking ability, smaller vocabularies, and poorer social and emotional skills than children who don’t.

What’s a parent to do? One commentator suggests that an iPad should be treated the same way smart parents use candy: as a once-in-a-while treat, not as the foundation for everyday (intellectual) nutrition. This means that play with screen-devices is limited and that, like candy, it’s never used as a reward for good behavior, as a bribe to prevent bad behavior, or as an alternative to more (intellectually) nutritious fare.

In addition, moms and dads also must model reasonable use of screen-devices. It’s important to consult one’s handheld only occasionally, not constantly, and to pay attention to the real people one is with instead of concentrating on virtual people on a screen. Both parents and children must spend most of their time carrying on conversations, engaged in play, and taking time to just think. The false busy-ness screen-devices promote shouldn’t become a habit for anyone.

The early childhood years are foundational for intellectual development, development of emotional steadiness, and creation of solid social abilities. These skills evolve through real-life experiences with real-life people and activities. Give your child “the good stuff.” Limit her access to your iPad.

* Disclaimer: If you are wondering “What about the or the tablet app? Can my child use this?”. If your child is age 2 or older, doctors recommend no more than 30 minutes per day on devices. So Southwestern Advantage encourages parents to stick with this guideline – even with Skwids. Prior to age 2, parents can enjoy (and get a tremendous value from) Advantage4Parents.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.