HealthZette

Toddlers and Screens Don’t Mix

See baby tap on the cellphone, see baby lose imagination

A majority of parents report using digital distractions today to complete household chores, to calm their child or to encourage sleep. With 96.6 percent of children now using mobile devices today, according to research in the journal Pediatrics — this is a conversation we need to have.

Dubbing a device “smart” does not preclude it from dumbing down America. We are emotionally and socially isolating ourselves from one another and doing it to our kids as well, even when they’re in the throes of toddlerhood.

Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of recommendations for infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children, said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician specializing in childhood development. In the journal Pediatrics, she suggested that screen time effects are “potentially more pronounced” in this population and that “children <30 months cannot learn from television and videos as they do from real-life interactions.”

But with research on smartphones and tablet use by children lagging tremendously behind, parents are left to formulate their own guidelines — and as you can imagine — that runs the gamut.

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Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and researcher from the University of Washington who studies media’s effects on children, proposes more realistic updates to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations of “no screen time for children under age 2.” He suggests instead that a “judicious use of interactive media is acceptable for children younger than the age of 2 years,” in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics cites associations between screen usage and language learning delays, “we still know surprisingly little about how iPads and other interactive media technologies affect children’s cognition,” said Christakis.

There’s no mistaking that children need to play, move and explore.

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As a nurse, I cheer quietly when I see patients in the hospital playing with car keys, toys or coloring books, and adults who are reading, knitting or simply visiting with one another. Digital devices have the potential to lock us in place.

Being present as a parent means being in the moment, interacting, and tapping into our imaginations to build magical things together. Free-range children may be a thing of the past, but there’s no need to live side-by-side with our children in a tactile world limited by screen size.

Gary McClain, Ph.D., a New York-based counselor and co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Breaking Bad Habits,” shared thoughts with LifeZette about digital devices for kids: “There are crucial ages when children need to be exploring the world around them, learning to talk, to interact with other children, to cooperate, pushing the boundaries and becoming more independent. Children need to be involved with the world around them.”

He added, “Cellphones can be so socially isolating. In a sense they invite isolation by distracting attention from the world around you. It’s an invitation to disengage, and children are watching their parents do just that.”

Megan Engbring, a mom in Flagstaff, Arizona, said she makes a conscious effort not to be on her phone around her young daughter. “I know she wants to do whatever Mommy is doing, so I try to set a good example,” she told LifeZette.

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By tuning into her needs, Engbring finds other suitable substitutes. “If I think she wants to play with the camera, I will take her to a mirror. If she just wants to see what happens when she swipes her finger, we go to a book where she can turn the pages.” Most of her redirection points to natural surroundings, exploring something of interest in the actual world, as opposed to the virtual.

And Susan Spizzirri, an Arizona grade school teacher and mom of two, said she sees cellphones as “highly addictive,” causing children to lose out on real-world experiences.

“If we are stuck somewhere where the kids are feeling restless, we try to look around to make observations, sing songs, or play games,” Spizzirri said. “Real-life interactions are important for their brain development, as well as building strong, creative, and social little beings.”

Jewels Doskicz is an Arizona-based registered nurse. She is a passionate patient advocate and health consultant.