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How Digital Devices Affect Infants and Toddlers

Ditch the devices; parental interaction trumps tech.

When my children were growing up, I was adamant about limiting their screen time. The main concern then was one device: the television set.

Today, device options, apps, and games designed for children—and marketed to eager parents—are seemingly endless. Electronic “entertainment” in its many forms comes packaged even for infants.

Early Start

According to a study from the Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, out of the 65 families they surveyed, 97 percent owned a touchscreen device. The average age of a child starting to use a touch-screen device was about 11 months, so it’s no surprise that many children master a digital device before they can talk, tie their own shoes, or read.

Ruth Milanaik, chief investigator of the study, said, “It was striking to see that parents were substituting books and general baby toys for smartphones. Many parents did not seem to bring any other distraction for their children except the touchscreen devices."

As the research showing such a strong ever-presence of smart technology in children’s lives mounts, some evidence about whether or not screens are helpful or harmful is inconclusive. Other findings are uncontested in the impact on children’s development at all ages, especially during the very early years.

A pilot program called Vroom, by the Bezos Foundation—a foundation that supports early childhood education—found that screen time is no substitute for one-on-one spoken interaction and play that nurtures babies’ language development. The program encourages short “lessons” where parents are instructed to chat with babies (even before the babies can respond), play simple games to stimulate early brain activity and harness everyday activities like breakfast time to interact. Vroom asserts that young babies and children build stronger neurological connections and comprehend the world around them through “conversations” with parents, before they can speak.

The Bezos Foundation isn’t the only group who insist on face-to-face spoken interaction between parent and young child. Susan Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood and Literacy Education at New York University, said that starting to read books to infants and 6-month-olds enhances their language development. Neuman also explained that when a parent reads to a child, the child develops his or her literary language in addition to the colloquial language in parent-child interaction.

Neuman’s position is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which called for pediatricians to recommend that parents read to their infants, including newborns. A new article in Pediatrics reinforces the bonding experience when a parent reads with a child. "It also enriches the family experience, and contributes to social/emotional development," said Dr. Peter Richel, chief of pediatrics at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, N.Y.

The Importance of “Real-World” Play

Fellow Psychology Today blogger and director of the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy Lois Holzman stresses that play helps us grow at any age. “Playing the way babies do is how they become, grow, develop, transform,” she wrote in her post, stressing that when babies play with caregivers, they develop language skills and carry on conversations, although the baby may not yet know how to speak.

For now we know two things for certain: In terms of development and learning among the very young, nothing replaces a conversation, reading a book, playing a game or holding hands. As developers work to create apps that enhance learning for infants and toddlers, the educational value of “screens” may change. However, it could take years before studies indicate benefits that negate the downside of technology for infants and toddlers and begin to match the advantages of parental involvement.

Copyright @ 2014 Susan Newman.

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Anonymous. “To ‘Immunize’ Kids Against Illiteracy, Break Out A Book In Infancy.”, 24 June 2014.…

Holzman, Lois. “Is Psychology Missing the Play Revolution?”, 22 June 2014.

Long, Katherine. “Pilot program gives parents tools to boost babies’ brains.”, 30 March 2014.

Thompson, Dennis. “Parents Should Read to Kids Daily: Pediatrics Group.”, 24 June 2014.

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