I remember a time when seeing a toddler operating a smartphone or tablet like a pro was shockingly impressive – but now little fingers swiping away on their parents' devices is pretty much standard toddler behaviour.
According to research published in the periodical the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), 96.6% of American children pick up digital devices before their first birthday.
"Most 3- and 4-year-olds [have] used devices without help, and one-third engaged in media multitasking."
Can we blame them? They see, they do. In 2017, We Are Social Digital reported that South Africans spend on average more than 5 hours a day on a mobile phone, tablet or PC.
And as useful as devices can be at keeping idle hands busy, research says when it comes to young users it's a major slippery slope which could lead to increased unhappiness later on in adolescents.
Since young users mostly use digital devices to access videos and games, what is this doing to their still-developing vulnerable minds?
This article by the New York Post claims that technology is like drugs to young kids. We're talking the hardcore stuff, heroine-and-cocaine hardcore, where normal behaviour like interacting with peers, playing outside and living life as we know it is interrupted by the constant need to feed the digital monkey on the back.
The addiction can be so bad, this article says, that it warrants rehabilitative treatment. Just like these intoxicating substances do, tech devices impact the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain in charge of controlling the impulses and the same area responsible for regulating emotions and social skills.
- Also see: Toddlers + touch-screens = little sleep?
Separating fact from media hype
And it makes sense, right?
We've seen kids become almost zombie-like when they're on any kind of device. We've been them. Ever tried carrying on a conversation while also responding to a text?
But further research on the exact impact on a young child's brain brought up zilch. No actual studies could so far confirm or disprove that digital devices are harmful or drug-like to a child.
An insightful news segment proved useful (watch the video below).
In it, we meet the Klaus family whose three children aged 9, 7 and 4 go tech-free, only playing with their 'normal' toys, for a period of one month.
The viewer is also given a look at the Barnard College's Center for Toddler Development where a group of children between the ages of 3 and 5 were given a chance to play with both digital and analogue toys, while an adult constantly asked them what they were doing.
No points for guessing that when they were digitally engaged the kids would barely respond, and became more social and responsive when playing with none-digital toys. The centre concluded that if digital devices were used for calming or pacifying, then a child might never learn the skill to self-soothe on their own.
And for the parents who took away their children's digital devices for a month? None of the children needed treatment for withdrawal symptoms, thankfully, but they did find that the amount of time that was suddenly available was major. Their eldest even picked up sewing as a new hobby. The Klaus' found that just like with all things we give our kids, limitations and parental supervision are key.
- Also see: Are we fixating on screen time?
Watch: Two mini-experiments with toddlers and digital devices
So, tablet or no tablet?
"Tech addiction has never been a reason a child has been referred to me, however many of the difficulties I treat them for (motor planning issues, poor coordination, poor focus and attention) are often as a result of too much screen time," says Romy Kruger, a Cape Town-based occupational therapist who has seen a few concerning cases of what too much screen time can do to young children.
"I once had a 3-year-old girl come to me as her development was delayed. She was not meeting her language or her motor milestones. I was querying a possible autism diagnosis as she seemed very disconnected from the world around her.
"Upon chatting to her parents I discovered she was spending upwards of 4 hours a day in front of a screen. As soon as this decreased, we saw major shifts in her development and she suddenly became more interested in the world around her, thus improving her language, social interaction and motor development.
"I am by no means saying autism is linked to screentime, but rather that too much screen time at a young age can definitely lead to a social disconnect as the virtual world seems so much more appealing than the real one."
We asked Romy for a few tips on what parents can do to keep their kids' use of technology at a healthy level. Here are her pointers.
OT Romy Kruger's advice for parents
How much time is too much screentime?
"It is very dependent on the child and the family. Some kids, like adults, really need 20 minutes of screentime when they get home from school to help them unwind. I think it comes down to what they are watching. If they are watching fast-paced, brightly coloured action shows, this is unlikely to assist with unwinding. The American Academy of Paediatrics states that kids under 18 months should not be exposed to any screentime. Between ages 2 to 5 it should be no more than 2 hours a day."
Is there anything parents can do to limit their children’s screentime?
"My advice to parents is always to limit screentime to when you really need it. Don't stick a screen in front of your child if you could be doing something else. However, if you need to cook dinner and there is no-one to watch your child, then the TV/iPad can be a helpful tool.
"It's also helpful to engage the older child in a discussion around screentime and how much they are allowed so that they feel they have some autonomy around how they use their time. For example, if they choose to play on the iPad, it may mean no TV before supper.
"Parents also need to learn not to be afraid to say no to their kids. Once they make that decision to cut down on screentime they need to stick with it. The first week is always the hardest as it is like a drug addict going into withdrawal, but it does get easier."
What kinds of activities do you recommend parents engage their young ones in to lessen screentime?
"Anything! Go back to basics. Playing outside, colouring in, board games, building tents and forts with the furniture. Let the kids be bored for a while – that's when they will come up with the best games!"
Are you strict about your toddler and screentime? Or do you feel some apps and games can be beneficial to your toddler? Tell us by emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.
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