Babies using smart devices: helpful or hindering?

75% of toddlers (6-36 months) use smartphones and tablets daily. Many parents have concerns over the effects that these devices can have on their child’s development, but others believe they could be advantageous if used correctly. Although it’s a new area of research, we’ve taken a look at what the current evidence says about the effects of smart devices on development, along with some tips on how to use them with your child in a healthy and positive way.

First, why all the fuss: Is smart device use by children is really not a smart idea?

95% of UK households have at least one mobile phone, 1 in 4 children under 6 have a smartphone and babies as young as 6 months use them. These surprising statistics may be scary, along with headlines such as “Youngsters using smartphones lose out on sleep” and “Obesity, aggression, developmental delays: What tablets and mobiles are doing to our children”.

The fear of the unknown and understandable worries about our children can lead to this information having a lot of influence over our decisions, but it’s important to look at the details and to come to an understanding of what it all means. A study from the University of Toronto found that an increased risk of screen time may put children at higher risk for speech delays, and that “for each 30-minute increase in handheld screen time, researchers found a 49% increased risk of expressive speech delay.” But it was argued that this study had many limitations, and more research needs to be done in this area.

Another study by Cheung et al found links between the increased use of touchscreens and decreased overall amount of sleep in the infants they looked at: “every additional hour of tablet use was associated with 15.6 minutes less total sleep.” In another blog post, we looked at the importance of sleep for babies, and statistics like this might make you want to lock your smart devices away in a high cupboard, but they concluded that “total restriction of touchscreen use may limit young children in terms of the potential benefits of these devices.” And that we need to “maximise benefits and minimise negative consequences” of them.

Many of the ideas from the headlines may be based on things such as parents using smartphones and tablets as pacifiers to keep children distracted, rather than as educational tools. Using them as pacifiers when children are bored, crying or being noisy, or as a distraction so that you can get focus on other things, such as chores, means that usage isn’t being monitored and children may be missing out on other important activities needed for their development.

Excessive use of smart devices is not good for anyone, especially children who have many other things that they need to be doing for their development. It’s been found that overuse may affect their sightsleepwell-being, etc. – so it seems that the key may be moderation.

Now, the pragmatists and technophiles who advise cautious embrace!

The above findings may seem daunting, but they can be used to formulate healthy ways in which we can introduce smart devices into our children’s lives. As technology develops, we must also develop the ways in which we use it. Smart technology is becoming a normal way of life; not only do the majority of us own a smartphone, but the use of things like smart lighting, security, TVs, fitness devices, fridges and even kettles are also on the rise. Everyday objects are becoming connected, to make life a little bit easier. So, instead of trying to ban our children’s use of devices, many argue that we should be teaching them how to use them safely as they can be advantageous for their development.

Research from Bedford et al found “no evidence of a negative association between toddlers’ use of touchscreen devices and developmental outcomes and even suggest a positive association with fine motor development.” They believe that touchscreen use by toddlers is likely to increase in the future and that touchscreens are intuitive, so the recommendations for zero screen time for children under 2 is “out of line with the reality of the current home media environment of most toddlers and difficult to enforce by parents who themselves are conducting more of their lives through such devices.” So, as things change, adaptation may be better than extreme measures.

One of the researchers from the above study, Tim Smith, recently appeared on BBC’s Babies: Their Wonderful World, where he tested how well infants who use tech and infants who don’t use tech completed specific tasks. The first task measured gross motor skills (walking in a straight line) and found no difference between the two groups of children. The second and third tests, however, which tested fine motor skills (drawing a straight line and stacking blocks) saw the tech users triumph over the non-tech users. This was only a small study, but it backs up Smith’s other research. Check it out here.

Dimitri Christakis believes that the American Academy of Paediatrics guideline (that’s been in place since 1999) that “we discourage the use of media by children under the age of two,” needs to be rethought. He argues that touchscreens should not displace other developmental activities, but could replace things such as watching TV which, without the interactive elements, does not offer the same developmental advantages of smart devices. He understands the flaws of these devices, and that they can lead to addictions and other problems, so “limits on use are in order,” and argues that “while many of you wait for us to build an evidence base before this technology too is supplanted by some new one, I believe the judicious use of interactive media is acceptable for children younger than the age of 2 years.”

Technology is advancing so quickly that it’s sometimes difficult for long-term, in depth research to be carried out and for conclusions to be made before we move on from that technology. Like with many things in life, too much of something isn’t good; food, sleep, socialising, etc. – all needed but kept within limits, and this may come down to using your intuition to make sure touchscreens aren’t having negative effects on your child’s development. Check out our series of blog posts on baby milestones (the first 2 months2-4 months5-7 months, 8-10 months and look out for further ones) for some ideas on what your child might be able to do at certain stages.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health are now advising parents that they should worry less about screen time, as screens are here to stay and are a great way to explore. Instead we need focus on using screens in the right way.

So, what is the smart way to use smart devices?

The current research has shown that smart devices can have a negative effect on children’s development but, if used in the right way, they can help develop their fine motor skills, communication skills, enhance their learning and get them adjusted to a world where the use of smart technology is on the rise. We’ve put together some tips on how you might turn screen time into healthy, productive play:

Create screen time structure

Research from Dinleyici et al found that 18% of the children they looked at (1/3 of them were younger than 2) used smart devices at the dinner table. Dinner time is important for family bonding, especially for working parents, and letting children use smart devices at the dinner table can create bad habits for the future.

So that children don’t get carried away and end up spending hours on their devices, it’s important to have some structure in activities. Try allowing them 20 minutes at a time, 2 or 3 times a day – rather than cutting it out completely, give them a chance to join in but don’t allow usage to become excessive which, as discussed previously, can have negative effects.

It’s also important to switch off 1-2 hours before bed – the artificial light that comes from screens can have a interfere with sleep. Sleep is extremely important for anyone at any age, and especially for children who are still growing and learning; and the younger they are, the more sleep they need.

Make sure they’re not missing out

Don’t let screen time inhibit or replace active play, creativity time or socialising as a lack of these can affect a child’s mental and emotional development.

Infants need to be active for around 3 hours a day to grow healthily, with a mixture of light activity (standing, walking, playing with toys) and energetic activity (running around, swimming, jumping on a trampoline, games such as hide and seek). Most UK pre-school children currently spend 120-150 minutes a day in physical activity, which is below the recommended amount. So, if you are introducing smart devices, make sure your little one is getting enough active time.

Transfer skills to the real world

Research by Rachel Barr found that children often have difficulty transferring what’s learned on screens to the real world, but “learning can be enhanced when such constraints are considered.” So, if you’re playing a sorting game on a tablet, try transferring that to the real world and get them to sort blocks or cups.

Get involved

Use screens with them – turn it into bonding time with guided interaction: ask questions, encourage, praise and make suggestions. Keep the communication up to encourage their language development while they learn about other things. If it’s a game that you can’t get involved in, still monitor what they do and make sure the device is child friendly.

It’s also important to be self-aware. Be conscious of how much time you spend on screens when children are around and how that might influence them.

Focus on educational content

Use educational apps that can improve their language and thinking skills, Drawing apps to help them to express themselves creatively and video calling to introduce them to family and friends and encourage their communication skills. Free apps will have adverts and may require making a purchase further into the game (leading to frustration); consider purchasing an app (make sure to research and read reviews) or try CBeebies which is both educational and advert free.

For screens to have a positive effect, they should be used as tools for learning and bonding, rather than a distraction or cure for boredom.

For more tips, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have put together a guide on recommendations for screen time use. which includes a list of questions to ask yourself about your family’s scree time to help you all keep on track.

If you want to keep up to date on this topic, some of the researchers discussed in this post have set up the TABLET (UK Toddler Attentional Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens) project, which we hope to see more from in the future.

We hope this has helped you to understand how you can use tablets and smartphones with your little ones. Let us know in the comments below what you think, and if you let your baby use smart devices in any way!