Very Young Kids Often Use Tablets, Smartphones, Study Finds

By age 2, many spend an hour or more a day on mobile devices, but parents have concerns

SUNDAY, April 26, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Up to half of very young children use smartphones and tablets in some way before their first birthday, a new study finds. But parents still worry about their children's use of mobile media, a separate study says.

"We were not surprised to find out children were exposed to mobile devices at a young age," said Dr. Hilda Kabali, a pediatric resident at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, and the author of the study on babies' mobile use. "Most parents now have mobile devices and children are attracted to them."

In her group's study, 370 parents from a mostly urban, low-income minority community answered questions about their young children's mobile device use.

By age 1 year, more than one-third of their babies had touched or scrolled the screen of a mobile device such as a smartphone. And by age 2, more than half had scrolled screens, called someone, watched a TV show on the device, played video games or used an app, Kabali found.

Also by 2 years of age, more than one-quarter were using mobile devices for at least an hour a day.

Parents often used the devices to calm or entertain their babies and toddlers while they were busy, the study showed.

For example, 60 percent of parents said their children played with a smartphone or iPad-like tablet while the parent ran errands, and 73 percent gave their kids the phone while parents did chores around the house.

Just under one-third of parents had used mobile devices to help put their children to sleep, and two-thirds had used them to calm the child. Yet only 30 percent of the parents had discussed their children's media use with their pediatrician.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time, including TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets, by children under age 2.

"Although mobile devices are ubiquitous in young children's lives, we don't yet know the impact mobile devices can have on young children," Kabali said. "What is realistic is for parents to guide their children's media experience."

The other study, involving 30 in-depth interviews with the caregivers of children up to age 8, revealed that parents have a number of concerns about mobile media.

"We were struck with how intensely many parents wanted to vent their feelings about this topic," said study author Dr. Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. "Many expressed feeling that mobile and interactive media are proliferating so rapidly that they aren't sure how to keep up, how to judge good from bad apps for kids, how to say 'no' when their child demands more, or how to keep their child interested in 'old-fashioned' or hands-on play."

Parents also worried about children's social skills or imagination if they used too much mobile media or their ability to keep up in a tech-savvy world if they didn't use the media at all.

Limit-setting and enforcing also were challenging for parents, the survey showed. In some homes, mobile devices served to calm difficult children or provide a quiet time.

What effect this early exposure to mobile devices might have on children depends on several factors, Radesky said. Three key components that matter include content, amount and co-viewing, she said.

Beneficial content is age-appropriate, slow-paced and educational, and children learn more from media when engaging with it with another adult, Radesky said.

Both studies were scheduled for presentation this weekend at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego. Data and conclusions presented at meetings are usually considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Concerns that mobile use might harm children's attention spans or lead to language delays are unfounded, said Susan Neuman, a professor of early childhood and literacy at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University.

In fact, she said, careful, deliberate use of multimedia may even promote some vocabulary development, and the learning children do before kindergarten may need to change how teachers teach.

"I think the average kid who has access to these apps coming into preschool will be advanced," Neuman said. "There's a lot of independent learning going on very early on, and if the kindergarten or first grade teacher takes advantage of that, great. If they don't, I think we're going to have a lot of bored kids with the traditional kindergarten program."

There is still a lot more to learn about how young children can benefit from mobile media and at what ages, said Neuman. "We've just begun to see the capability of what's possible," she said.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics talks about toddler growth and development.

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