Is It Wrong to Use Tech as a Babysitter?

Has the ubiquity of modern devices condemned the next generation to perpetual brain mush?

By Evan Dashevsky

Kids are annoying psychopaths with little regard for your time or patience. And the younger they are, the more trying they can be, as their very survival depends on being around you every waking moment. As much as you love the little wholly dependent bags of adorableness, sometimes you Just. Need. A. Break.

I’m sure new (and not-so-new) parents can relate to the following scenario: Your infant is crying for no reason in particular. Feeding, changing, naptime, attention, singing, pleading — nothing seems to calm them down. Well, not nothing. There is one secret trick that you know will calm their spazzy soul, if just for a little bit: Firing up your laptop and playing some familiar, brightly colored YouTube clip.

Of course, you would never do that because you know that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) clearly states that children under the age of two should never be placed in front of a screen of any kind. Studies have shown that babies’ development can be harmed by even being in the same room with a TV playing in the background. And media exposure for older kids should be strictly limited.

But for all those terrible, unfit parents out there who have stooped to such techniques? How bad is using the screen to calm down an inconsolable child? Like, exactly how bad?

How Bad Is Bad?

Parents of young children, let’s be honest: Many of us have — in our darkest moments of parental despair — employed the aid of some connected doodad to bring peace to our household. And, in today’s Internet-of-Things world, that aid is nearly always available.

Portals into the Matrix are everywhere: On our desks, in our pockets, and curled around our wrists. It would be a herculean task to keep little eyeballs away from screens.

So has all our modern technology condemned the next generation to perpetual brain mush?

“Studies show that exposure to screens at young ages can negatively impact language development and also raise concern about longer term impact on attention and other developmental skills,” says Marjorie J. Hogan, MD, co-author of the AAP’s policy statement Children, Adolescents, and the Media. “Screen take away from time reading, playing independently (and with adults), and active play.”

OK, that sounds bad. But allow me to grasp at some straws: If technology allows an otherwise dedicated parent to get some things done around the house and get a little break, is that truly the worst thing in the world?

“Distraction is fine and very necessary for parents of young kids,” charitably adds Dr. Jenny S. Radesky, pediatrician and author of a study that investigated the relationship between media exposure and self-regulation in young children. “But I know some parents who say, ‘This is the only way I get my kids to calm down,’ and that is a habit I would not recommend. Children — even from an early age — need to learn more internal ways of calming themselves down.”

OK, parents, so occasionally handing your phone over to a crying child may not be akin to serving them a big ol’ bowl of ADD. However, parents should be very aware that their quest for a quick-calming method may actually be making their children fussier in the long-term.

Dr. Radesky’s paper (which, we should note, analyzed data from the early aughts — before the modern smart-mobile revolution) concluded that early childhood self-regulation problems are indeed associated with increased media exposure. But the pattern doesn’t appear to be a completely one-sided case of cause and effect.

The data suggests that the relationship is a vicious feedback loop, in which needier kids get more TV and therefore don’t learn to self-regulate. “Some babies just come out fussier,” Radesky explains. “I know parents who put their two- or three-month-old in front of the TV [to calm them down]. That baby might then get fewer of the interactions with their parents, which would actually help them learn to calm down. They get more fussy, they get more TV—so it’s a cycle, a bidirectional relationship.”

Known Unknowns

If you’ve ever used a device to calm a child and still feel guilty about it, perhaps you can take some solace in the fact that you are not alone. Another study, from Northwestern University (PDF), found that 37 percent of parents reported handing their child a smartphone or tablet when they were busy with chores or making dinner, and 17 percent of parents reported allowing a child to play with a smartphone or tablet to calm them down. (Both these figures, we should note, were still far behind the percentage of parents who reported using a television to achieve the same ends.)

Even when a smartphone or tablet isn’t routinely being used as a calming mechanism, a child growing up today will inevitably get their hands on an interactive thingamabob of some kind. But here’s the curious thing: While we know children all around the world are being exposed to these devices, there is almost no research examining their effects.

So, how warped of a generation are we creating here?

“We have virtually no research on how young brains are affected by ‘old’ (TV and movies, for example) versus ‘new’ (the Internet, iPads, cell phones) technology,” commented Dr. Vic Strasburger co-author of AAP’s children and media policy statement. “One might think that interactive technology is preferable compared with passively watching TV or a movie, but that is conjecture only. But if the interactive technology is a third-person-shooter video game, I seriously doubt that playing such a game is preferable to watching PBS.”

It’s important to note that content matters. You wouldn’t allow your small child to watch some violent zombie movie on TV, so you probably shouldn’t allow them to play (or watch you play) a violent zombie game on your laptop. But aside from keeping kids away from unsuitable content, parents should also consider things like pace: Studies have linked diminished mental agility (at least temporarily) in four-year-olds who had recently viewed a fast-paced cartoon versus those who had watched a more reasonably paced educational program, or watched no TV at all.

No Replacement For You

We all want our kids to be as tech-savvy as possible. But mobile tech aimed at very small children is seldom more than electronic distractions built to serve parents rather than educate kids.

For example, Fisher-Price’s iPad-fitted and virally despisedNewborn-to-Toddler Apptivity Seat” (shown at left) has been specifically designed to keep babies engaged for long periods of time. The official documentation may say that the device promotes “soothing,” but these devices are just there to babysit so parents can turn their attention elsewhere.

“I think putting the screen as a barrier between the baby and the rest of the world is a bad idea,” Dr. Radesky says. “Babies learn from people, from faces, and the screen is a barrier to that. There’s nothing that a baby needs to master in the first year or two of life that can be taught from a screen.”

While there is an unfortunate and frustrating lack of data about the effects of interactive mobile media, researchers know that tiny brains suffer not only from an overabundance of direct media stimulation, they also suffer from not receiving as much stimulation from you. One-on-one interaction is crucial in human development, through explicit learning (learning new words from hearing you speak, for example) and implicit learning (non-verbal lessons, including self-regulation, building empathy, and handling frustrations).

Children need human interaction to thrive, so there is no reason — aside from parental convenience and profits for the niche baby-tech industry — for them to be Borged-up at all times. I would hope that common sense would dictate that a child doesn’t need to engage with a tablet while potty training. There’s plenty of other things going on at that moment to keep their minds occupied.

So parents, if your little ones are like mine, then they’ll do all they can to get their hands on that expensive, lit-up, noise-making device you are always playing with. And there may be times when you’ve had a long day, and you are just going to let them have it. It happens.

But if you monitor and limit the time your child spends engaging with technology, and you’re aware of the choices you’re making, chances are good your baby’s brain isn’t slowly being melted into tapioca.

Your children depend on you for knowledge and guidance. Perhaps this is the perfect moment to teach them the value of moderation, one of the most valuable commodities in this new world full of everything, immediately, and always.

Read more: “Google’s Project Bloks Teaches Kids to Code

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