Helping little minds thrive

Will screens make my baby stupid?

baby screen

Half of infants under the age of 1 year use touchscreen and by 2-3 years of age 92% of toddlers are using touchscreens on a regular basis, for around 45 minutes a day

Ok, that’s a purposefully provocative title.  But I think it kind of hits the nail on the head in terms of the underlying fear that news headlines often prod around.  

Screens are actually pretty new. Believe it or not, in 2011 only 7% of families owned a touchscreen (Ofcom, 2014). Today it’s hard to imagine a household without one. A recent UK survey of over 700 families suggests that nowadays half of infants under the age of 1 year use touchscreens, and by 2-3 years of age 92% of toddlers are using touchscreens on a regular basis, for around 45 minutes a day.

Touch screens are a part of our lives now.  For better or for worse. And while us adults are fleeing to buy dumb phones as we navel gaze about about our own screen slavery and need for digital detox, just what impact is the digital world having on our little ones developing mind?  

There’s a lot of hype in the media, with some studies reporting scary effects like slowing down of cognitive development.  The problem is, touch screens are such a recent entry to the household that it’s still too early for the academics to make definitive conclusions. What we really need are well-replicated longitudinal studies that follow thousands of babies into adulthood, carefully tracking large amounts of variables.  But the babies just haven’t grown up yet.

As parents, we can’t wait a generation to find out.  What are we meant to do in the meantime?

This article takes a look at what the guidance suggests, what evidence this is actually based on, and what current research suggests in terms of sensible ways to approach screen-time management with your little one.

What the big bods recommend

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“Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health suggests parents should worry less about screen time… but missed time on other enriching activities”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (2016) concludes there is insufficient evidence to suggest the use of technology is beneficial for children under 2 years of age, and therefore recommends screen media be discouraged for this age group.

However, more recent guidance published in the UK in Jan 2019 by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health suggests parents should worry less about screen time, highlighting the fact that most of the adverse effects of screen time actually come down to missed time on other enriching activities (such as reading, social interaction, exercising etc).

The main problem here is that both sets of guidance are largely based on studies of TV and DVD consumption, rather than touchscreens.  TVs have, after all, been around a lot longer. Allowing for evidence to accumulate, and giving researchers the confidence to make stronger claims and develop guidance.

What have we learnt from looking at the effects of TV?

Overall research suggests it’s very difficult for infants (0-3 years) to learn from passively viewing TV - even when programmes are specifically designed for a given age range, and perhaps even more so when they are specifically designed to teach a specific skill.  For example, a study in 2009 looked at whether the Baby Einstein DVD ‘Baby Wordsworth’ could actually improve the vocabulary of 12-15 month olds (it’s claim). The findings suggest no effect on learning. However, programmes with more of a story-like narrative and characters to engage with (like Dora the Explorer) can actually be beneficial for development in certain cases, especially in older children.  So instead of quantity, perhaps we should be focusing on quality. With narratives seeming particularly helpful (at least in the case of learning words).

Another important learning is that as children get older they appear more able to learn from TV, with some programmes (such as Sesame Street) demonstrating some quite real improvements in learning and school readiness. It’s infants who particularly struggle to learn from TV, and who benefit more from learning through social interaction.

Reading is a classic example – one of the biggest predictors of vocabulary size. Joint attention scenarios, such as reading, provide infants with more context, and more support to extract what they need to learn. For example, parents (whether they realise it or not) are actively supporting word learning every time they point at a picture and name it, when they ask ‘what is this?’ or ‘where is the…’ during story time.

So screens can provide some opportunity for learning when the content is high quality. And this is especially true for older children, rather than infants. When it comes to infants, human interaction may be key to unlocking the potential for learning from screens (at least for language). So one thing we can take away from all this is that content that encourages parent-child interaction may be better placed to support development than those which are for solo play.

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“Infants who were exposed to touchscreens earlier in life, attained their fine motor milestones (such as stacking blocks) at an earlier age

What we know about the effects of touchscreens on development

A few studies have shown that infants and toddlers can learn from socially interactive touchscreen use like video chat. So Facetiming Grandma is actually a pretty good use of screen time for little baba. In fact, more regular social interaction with distant family members or absent parents via video chat may well come up trumps in terms of positively influencing social and emotional development.

Further potential benefits are starting to emerge in other areas of learning. For example, researchers from King’s College London surveyed 715 parents of 6 to 36-month-olds, and found that infants who were exposed to touchscreens earlier in life, attained their fine motor milestones (such as stacking blocks) at an earlier age. Active scrolling was the important thing here – not passively watching videos. The study isn’t perfect, but it does highlight the potential benefits that still need exploring (and replicating). Once we have a clearer idea of what the benefits are, we – as parents – will be in a much better place to make more confident decisions about how to manage (and even take advantage of!) screen time.  

Interestingly, this study didn’t find any negative effects of early touchscreen exposure on the achievement of key developmental milestones. However, as the researchers point out, these are relatively blunt instruments and further work needs to be done exploring the effects of touchscreen use on specific areas of development; language, attention, motor skills, emotion, social interaction, self-regulation to name a few. But there’s certainly no strong (reliable) evidence for detrimental effects on learning so far. Unless, obviously, screen time takes away from other important, enriching activities.

So what do we do in the meantime?

Check out the guidance from the RCPCH, including their fact sheet on the health impacts of screen usage for parents.

There are also a number of app curating websites which aim to help families navigate the digital world by making recommendations. Common Sense Media rate digital content based on what we know about their effects on development and learning – I think it’s pretty good. Check out their 20 best apps for kids for some inspiration. Children’s Technology Review is similar, although a little more academic (just look at that website), and is a paid-for subscription service.  

The key learnings I’ve taken from reviewing the evidence are that touchscreens are more beneficial when they are being used for some form of real interaction - whether that’s physical  interaction (e.g. active scrolling as opposed to passively viewing something) or social interaction (such as interacting with other people via video chat or engaging with content that stimulates real life interaction with an adult or sibling). So I’m going to look at ways to enhance that form of usage over and above sticking on Peppa.

One last thing to remember - they are always watching!

I suppose one final thing to bear in mind before we go is that we know children not only learn by doing, but by watching others – vicarious learning. And we all know there’s no-one little baba likes to scrutinise more than their parents. So perhaps there is something in all that navel gazing about our own screen slavery and need for digital detox. Maybe we need to manage our own usage first. But this doesn’t necessarily mean going on a digital diet. Perhaps we also need to think about the areas of our lives where screens genuinely enrich or improve our experiences, and think about harnessing those more. Maybe it will lead to some inspiration or insight into screen usage that’ll also be helpful to the little one. Who knows. Worth a try?

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