Susan Greenfield Ph.D.

Mind Change

Do Smartphones Give A Head Start In Life?

What happens when the developing brain encounters smartphones?

Posted Jun 01, 2015

A new study made headlines last month after it found that babies as young as six months old are using smartphones and other mobile devices.1 The research, presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting, also showed that over a third of infants under age one have used smartphones or tablets and, by age two, almost all children have. By one year of age, 14% of children were spending at least one hour per day using mobile media.

Given that mobile devices have become so ubiquitous, and parents are more time-poor then ever, it is not surprising that infants as young as six months are now accessing the screen. However, these findings are contradictory to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation that discourages any screen time for children under age two. The AAP recommendations are based off research that shows that there is no benefit from traditional screen time, such as television or DVDs, for infants under two, and there is the potential for harm.2

But smartphones and other mobile devices are interactive: does that mean they might provide benefits for infants that passive screen watching can’t? There is currently no evidence either way. What we do know is that in the first two years of life, the human brain undergoes an explosion in growth unlike no other. It is a critical period of development, a brief window in time, during which an infant’s brain is profoundly shaped by their interactions with the world.

While the research is in the pipeline investigating infants and mobile devices, pediatric experts have weighed on how the use of smartphones and other mobile devices might impact infants.3 As with all technology, the likely benefits and risks to the user depend on how the device is being used, as well as how often. Smartphones and mobile devices can enable communication, entertainment and education: here is what we do know.

When it comes to communication, the use of smartphones and other mobile devices to connect with long-distance or otherwise unreachable family members, through voice or video calls, is inarguably a positive feature. The study showed that 59% of infants had called someone (we assume intentionally).3 While mobile technologies allow us to connect with loved ones, they shouldn’t replace an infant’s exposure to face-to-face communication.

As for education, comparably, 41% of infants had used apps.3 Although some apps targeted towards children are simply weird, many on face value appear to be educational, such as building literacy and numeracy skills. Experts do not verify these claims, meaning it is up to parents to determine which educational apps might be useful. Can infants learn effectively from educational apps? Not only do we need more research, we also need to investigate whether learning from educational apps are superior, comparable, or inferior to learning from an adult, or other real-world experiences. For example, research with 5-6 year olds has shown that reading an e-book improved literacy more than reading a traditional book, but only when the e-book was read with an adult.4

Pediatric experts propose that smartphones and their slick design, and apps with visual and audio effects could engage infants with educational content above and beyond what traditional real world tools can, but they could also distract them from learning. As such, apps targeted towards young children need to strike a balance between engagement and distraction to effectively facilitate learning.3

Perhaps the most obvious reason for giving your infant a smartphone would be to amuse them. Most parents let infants play with mobile media while running errands (60%), doing chores around the house (73%), to calm the child (65%), and to put the child to sleep (29%).1 Experts are concerned about the impact that mobile devices as distractors from boredom or frustration or soothers from distress (or “shut-up toys”) might have on a young child’s ability to regulate their own emotions.3 While smartphones might be helpful in calming down or distracting a child in the short term, pediatric experts are concerned that if they are used regularly, a child who is still developing their ability to regulate their own emotions could suffer.3

Infants also are using video games on mobile devices for entertainment. The research revealed that 38% of infants used mobile devices to play video games, an increasingly popular pastime amongst all age demographics.1 While video games have been shown to improve various aspects of attention and memory, it remains to be seen whether this benefit confers to infants. However, we can safely assume that if video games are able to modify attention and memory in the fully developed brains of adults, then their introduction at such a critical time of brain development is likely to be even more profound. But will it be positive? Parents also need to carefully monitor content, as aggression has been linked to violent video games.

Furthermore, it is important to consider that even if playing video games benefit young children, time spent playing video games displaces from playing from traditional toys or interactions with adults. This is the case for all aspects of a mobile device—although it may be flashier, brighter, and louder than any traditional toy, it is not necessarily superior. Pediatric experts point out that vital skills such as empathy, social skills, and problem-solving develop as the child explores the natural world, interacting with humans, and relying on their own initiative and creativity- all of which a smartphone limits.3 After all, the cardboard box that the device came in leaves far more to a child’s imagination than an app can offer.


  2. Christakis, D. A. (2009). The effects of infant media usage: what do we know and what should we learn?. Acta Paediatrica, 98(1), 8-16.
  3. Radesky, J. S., Schumacher, J., & Zuckerman, B. (2015). Mobile and interactive media use by young children: the good, the bad, and the unknown. Pediatrics, 135(1), 1-3.
  4. Korat, O., & Shamir, A. Electronic books versus adult readers: Effects on children’s emergent literacy as a function of social class. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23(3), 248–259. doi:10.1111/j.1365- 2729.2006.00213.x