You’ve probably seen it: Young children intently thumbing away on smartphones as their parents do something else, like talk over dinner in a restaurant.
What you probably didn’t know is that nearly 75 percent of those kids are using smartphones, tablets and other media devices before they reach the age of 2—and many of them are tapping away before they’ve taken their first steps.
Hilda Kabali, M.D., a third-year pediatrics resident at Einstein Medical Center, observed digital device behavior among children visiting a pediatric practice and also outside the hospital settings. Her findings, presented at the recent Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego, have attracted a lot of attention.
“We were curious to understand what was happening,” she says of the children and their devices. “We wanted to find out what they were doing with them." All of the 370 children included in the study, ages 6 months to age 4, had access to some type of mobile device.
The most surprising aspect of the study, Dr. Kabali says, was the observation that many children began to use mobile devices when they were as young as 6 months old. Some of them were on-screen for as 30 minutes at a time. “They started very young,” she says.
Device Use Increases as Kids Get Older.
How do kids spend their digital time? According to Dr. Kabali’s research, nearly 75 percent of the kids under 1 year old had made a phone call. More than half of them had watched TV on a mobile device. Others played video games, used apps or touched and scrolled the screen. By the time they were 1 year old, 14 percent were spending an entire hour a day using mobile media. And the amount of time spent on mobile devices increased as children grew older: 26 percent by age 2, and 38 percent by age 4.
How kids use the device also appears to change over time. The youngest children seemed to be using more educational apps, Dr. Kabali says, but as kids get older they appeared to be interested in more interactive apps. Parents use the devices for a variety of reasons, Dr. Kabali says. “Most parents seem to use them when they’re running errands. This is a very interesting finding as parents are using mobile devices as digital pacifier or as a digital nanny—and some parents use them for educational purposes.” (Indeed, a headline in the Washington Times referred to mobile devices as the “The New Nanny.”)
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Parents also give mobile devices to their kids to calm them down, Dr. Kabali says, or put them to sleep.
Most of the children in Dr. Kabali’s study were African American of Hispanic, from low-income families in an urban area. Is it accurate to assume that those findings extend to the general population? The answer isn’t completely clear, but Dr. Kabali suggests that mobile device use among children in the relatively well-off suburbs might be even more prevalent.
Mobile devices use is ubiquitous in the minority population, reflecting the bridging in technology and apps. According to a 2013 national media survey, mobile devices were not inaccessible to minority parents at that time. This was only one year prior to Kabali’s research. However, now smartphones, tablets and the like are much more affordable and available to low-income populations through subsidized costs.
So here’s the big question: What is the long-term impact of mobile device usage on young children? The American Academy of Pediatrics, for one, has long urged limited “screen time” for children—smartphones and tablets have screens, after all—and has recommended absolutely no screen time for children under 2, linking it to language learning delays.
But as for the specific impact of mobile device usage on young children, it’s still an open question.
For now, Dr. Kabali says, “We really don’t know. We need more studies to look at the impact of mobile device use in young children.”