Saturday 3 December 2016

David Coleman: Is that smartphone minding your toddler?

There is a real danger in using smartphones as digital babysitters

Published 28/09/2015 | 02:30

David Coleman
David Coleman

Parenting can be an exhausting occupation. You no sooner get through your day's work than you are faced with cooking, children's homework, cleaning up, washing clothes, ironing, bedtimes and a host of other tasks that beckon for your attention.

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Indeed, even if we didn't have all the jobs to do, just being with the children is a full-time occupation. The younger they are the more they need our presence to engage them, keep them busy and keep them from wrecking the place.

Toddlers are busy little people.

So, it is no wonder that lots of parents look for a break. Any time that we can create, during the day, when our children are safely busy and occupied is a God-send. Plopping the kids down in front of screen, whether it is a TV screen, a tablet or a smartphone, can be very appealing.

It seems like such an easy win-win. Our children zone out, happy to get lost in a digital world, staying quiet, uncomplaining, and we either get some time for ourselves, or time to get the jobs done unhindered.

Pawning your toddler off with your smartphone, while you rush around the supermarket with them in the trolley, might seem like a good plan. Letting them play a game, distractedly, might seem to make it easier to feed them without a tantrum.

But, the truth of how much we give our babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers access to screens is frightening. Some US research shows that, on any given day, 29pc of babies under the age of one will watch up to 90 minutes of TV. That rises to 64pc for toddlers between one and two years of age.

The most conservative studies show that children between the age of two and five spend at least two hours a day with screen media, with some studies suggesting it might be as high as four hours a day.

That suggests that we go way beyond just using screens as occasional or temporary babysitters for our children. And, all of the research indicates that there is a huge cost to small children of being so dependent on screens.

For example, research studies have demonstrated that the more time toddlers and pre-schoolers spend in front of screens is associated with higher BMI (Body Mass Index) scores in those children, when measured later in their childhood.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that screen time for children under three years of age is linked to irregular sleep patterns. A separate study showed that screen time is also associated with delayed language acquisition.

More research shows us that the more time preschool children spend with screens, the less time they spend engaged in creative play. Creative play is the bedrock of learning for toddlers and preschoolers. They literally learn by doing.

The more time they spend in front of screens, the less time they spend interacting with their parents. More opportunities for learning are lost. Even if parents watch something with their child they will talk less to them than if they were doing some hands-on play with their child.

Most parents, when asked, will say that they let their infant or toddler have screen time because they believe it is beneficial for their children's brain development. The opposite is the case.

Many children who have had heavy use of screen-based media suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep and a hyper-aroused nervous system. These children can be impulsive, moody, and struggle to sustain their attention and concentration.

Unsurprisingly, these kinds of emotional and behavioural outcomes for children who are exposed to too much screen time, are linked to structural changes in the brain. Rather than supporting healthy development of the brain, too much screen media is associated with problem brain development.

Those changes include atrophy (shrinkage) of the grey matter in the brain in places like the frontal lobes (the area involved in decision-making, risk taking, planning, organising and impulse control) and the insula (involved in the development of empathy and compassion for others).

Other researchers looked at the white matter of the brain, which is associated with how different parts of the brain communicate. They found that the white matter can become "spotty", interrupting communication within the brain. These kinds of interrupted connections may slow down brain signals (like a short-circuit) or cause them to be erratic (like a misfire).

Based on all of this kind of research, the American Academy of Paediatrics, for example, is explicit in its recommendation to allow children under two no access to TVs, smartphones or tablets. Their advice is clear; children of this age need to interact with people, not screens.

I'm a big believer in maintaining that ban on screens all the way through their toddlerhood and preschool years. What children have never had, they never miss. If you have established a no TV, no tablet rule in your home then your children will not push for it in their early years.

For sure this kind of policy can be reviewed in their school age years, and you can loosen your control on the remote control and the lock screen of your phone. But, when they are small do them the favour of having a screen free life.

If you are introducing a new screen free home to children who are used to TVs, tablets and phones, then you might encounter resistance. If you hold firm, that resistance will fade over time.

But, if it seems like too much to go cold turkey on screens, you may choose to wean them gradually off their screens, reducing their daily time bit by bit.

For toddlers and pre-schoolers, who are used to lots of TV or tablet time, even keeping it to about an hour a day will be beneficial. You may find that having screen time becomes a treat in your home, rather than an expectation or a norm.

Find alternatives, like reading, playing, baking, gardening to occupy them in the hours that they no longer spend in front of screens.

Be wary too of the casual use of screens as digital babysitters. Even though the temptation is strong, you will find that your relationship with your child will improve when you spend active time with them, playing, reading or letting them "help" you with your chores.

Take a risk and reduce or eliminate screen time for your toddlers. They can only benefit from more time playing and interacting with you. When they are older they may even thank you for it!

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