Staff pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children Dr. Catherine Birken told the Independent.ie that “while new pediatric [sic] guidelines suggest limiting screen time for babies and toddlers, we believe that the use of smartphones and tablets with young children has become quite common. This is the first study to report an association between handheld screen time and increased risk of expressive language delay.” Dr. Birken recommended that all screen media be limited in children younger than 18 months.
The study observed almost 900 children aged between six months and two years old. Dr. Birken’s findings were presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco.
Perhaps smartphones are not the smartest solution for very young children. An article on DailyMail.co.uk said that 90 percent of children younger than two know how to use an iPad. In fact, 50 percent of 12- to 17-month old babies displayed “moderate” ability in using the device, as reported on the same DailyMail.co.uk article. “When children turn one year old, they switch from using both hands and all their fingers to interact with the tablet to using an index finger -- which is what adults do,” wrote the lead author of the study to the publication. The article ended on a light note, stating that this could lead to more educational apps being developed to benefit a far younger audience.
Yet there are also other experts who see these findings as disturbing. “We have a lot of two-year-olds using tablets now, and I see three- and four-year-old that are already addicted,” noted Dr. Fran Walfish a Child and Family Psychotherapist in LittleThings.com. “It’s mind-blowing and a little scary.”
Possible side-effects of using a smart device early on include brain development delays. This new study found that every hour an infant spent on a smart tablet device was linked to 16 minutes of less sleep. Sleep is essential in brain development. Scientists believe that the light emitted from these devices suppresses the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. This disrupts the natural sleep-wake cycle. A neuroscientist cautioned in the LittleThings.com article that, “using these devices in the evening before bedtime really has this negative impact on our sleep and on your circadian rhythms.”
Moreover, children younger than two who regularly use smartphone devices may not develop the necessary neural connections associated with social relationships. Researchers have noted that it is during the first few years in life where essential neural pathways are built. Between the ages of zero and two, the infant’s brain triples in size. Typically this is the time when the child learns how to interact with a parent’s touch, voice, and other external stimuli. However, something different happens among children who merely just interact with a computer screen. Pediatric nurses have warned that children who spend more time on their computers lack concentration and often find it difficult to develop deeply personal relationships.
There is also intriguing supposition that children who grow up mostly with their noses on the screen have an increased likelihood of mental illness -- particularly body dysmorphic disorder caused by a lack of self-esteem.