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What You Should Know About Screens Before Handing Them to Your Kids

The latest research, concerns and family tips for navigating the digital world

Published on: February 24, 2020

school-age girl slouching and looking at a screen

It may seem as though digital devices and touchscreens like the iPad have been around for decades, but the reality is that these devices have only been around for about 10 years. In that short amount of time, they have become ingrained into everyday life, but research on their impact is limited. What concerns researchers like Dr. Dimitri Christakis is that we don’t yet understand the effects these devices may have on young children, and so that’s why they’ve taken center stage in many of his research studies.

Christakis isn’t advocating for taking screens away from children. He simply hopes he can help parents and caregivers better understand and navigate how devices like the iPad can fit into their lives in a healthy way.

“The point isn’t that we should take away all digital devices, but rather that we should come at it from a different perspective,” says Christakis. “We should ask, ‘How can we help children live healthy lives in a digital world that they’re immersed in from birth?'”

Christakis’ lab at Seattle Children’s Research Institute focuses on children from birth to age 5, and its research examines actionable strategies that promote children’s healthy social, cognitive and emotional development.

This excerpted post was originally published on the Seattle Children's On the Pulse blog.
Seattle Children's

“The truth is that young children spend more time with screens than they do with anything else, so for me, it becomes front and center in the lab,” says Christakis. “We’ve clearly shown in our preliminary data that these interactive screens have special allure for young children. They command their attention in a way that traditional toys don’t. We have concern that [screen time] can interfere with normal child and caregiver interactions and can even become a compulsion to play with them to the extent that they don’t do things young children would otherwise normally do in their day-to-day lives.”

Digital device concerns

Christakis has two fundamental concerns.

“We know that the use of these devices is incredibly gratifying to young children and can lead to compulsive use,” says Christakis. “It activates the dopamine reward reflex. For young children who from the day they are born are trying to figure out causality or cause and effect, the idea that they can touch a screen and make something happen is incredibly rewarding. There isn’t anything wrong with it — it’s a fundamental and important experience, but it can be so gratifying that they can choose to do that at the expense of all other things.”

One particular experiment, which was shown on the TODAY Show, examines this risk. During the experiment, children between 18 to 24 months of age are given a musical instrument to play with for an allotted amount of time. While the child plays with the toy, a researcher gives the child directional cues, examining how easily the child can be distracted from their toy. Next, the child is given an iPad and again directional cues are given while the child uses the device. Each child is exposed to four different types of media on the iPad: a musical instrument in the form of an application; a video of a child playing a musical instrument, in this case a guitar; an interactive application; and lastly the child’s favorite application, chosen by their family. What the researcher evaluates is whether a child is more distracted by the traditional toy or the iPad, and if at the end of the experiment the child is able to easily give the device back.

“What we’ve found in studies looking at traditional toy use in 18- to 24-month-olds is that they will spend 20 minutes a day on average with their favorite toy, be it blocks or a truck or doll,” says Christakis. “Most parents report that their children will spend much more time on an iPad, which raises two questions. Why would they spend so much more time on an iPad and what does that time come at the expense of? The typical 6- to 24-month-old child is only awake for about 12 hours a day. One of the things parents have to be mindful of is what is being displaced.”

The grocery store is a great example. It is a situation where a child could be very happy with an iPad, but what’s being displaced is potentially a very interactive experience with a caregiver.

“There is a lot for a child to look at and a lot of things parents can talk about [such as pointing out various fruits and vegetables],” says Christakis.

“In the absence of an iPad, parents typically talk to their child all the time to keep them happy while they are sitting in the cart,” notes Christakis. “All of that is extremely beneficial to children’s cognitive and social development. The question is whether or not the iPad can meaningfully replace such interactions. My hunch is that it cannot. I think of those interactions between a parent and a child as being fundamentally formative.”

How much is too much?

Although research is still limited in this area, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does offer recommendations. In a policy statement co-authored by Christakis, the AAP recommends avoiding digital media use (except video chatting) in children younger than 18 to 24 months and limiting children 2 to 5 years of age to one hour per day of high-quality programming.

“You never get their early childhood back,” says Christakis. “Those early experiences are incredibly important. The first three years of life are not only important for brain growth, but also for forming the foundational architecture of the mind.”

As more digital devices and experiences become ubiquitous in everyday life, Christakis and his team will continue their research.

“We have to think about the time children are spending with screens,” says Christakis. “How do we both optimize it and minimize it? How do we make it a positive experience, and how do we ensure it’s not the dominant experience? It’s complicated, which is why we’re dedicated to furthering our investigation into this issue.”

For more information about media use and children visit the AAP website.

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