Nearly every modern parent has given a tablet or smartphone to a child for entertainment at some point. These devices are simply easy and always on hand and may not harm the child if given to him once in a while. If parents hand out a device regularly, though, could the technology slow early child development?
One new finding presented at the 2017 Pediatrics Societies Meeting did find a correlation. The study analyzed over 900 children using parent-reported data on amount of screen time received. The parents reported the screen time of their children at age 18 months.
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Then, the researchers conducted an evaluation of the children’s development. Using the information reported by parents, researchers found that one-fifth of the children had almost 30 minutes of screen time each day. As screen time increased in some families, children were almost 50 percent more likely to have a speech delay as they developed.
On the other hand, senior investigator Dr. Catherine Birken does insist on caution when approaching these results. This pioneering study will need more testing to verify its accuracy. Interestingly, the study did not find a correlation between a child’s screen time and other developmental areas.
One major concern that doctors have with young children and technology is their interaction with other people. Babies and children under the age of 3 learn primarily by imitating other people. Technology can interfere with the time a child spends observing and imitating, a likely reason for the speech delays.
In addition, the screen time will interfere with bonding between the child and his family members. As he spends more time absorbed in media, even educational media, he will tune out family members and often fight with siblings over the device being used.
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Even when only the parent is using a smartphone or tablet, the device will still cause an interruption between parent and child bonding. In one small study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers studied 55 caregivers in fast food restaurants.
Over 70 percent of the caregivers pulled out a device during the meal, and researchers noted the various reactions of both the children and adults. They found that the children would either entertain themselves or increase antics to regain attention. In addition, many of the connected caregivers would react harshly to their children.
Adults simply need to disconnect, especially around their children, and children should entertain themselves in active play instead of technology. Researchers do need more tests and evidence that technology affects young children negatively. In the meantime, though, people should err on the side of caution.
At this point, parents may be wondering about the use of technology in the classroom or educational technology at home. Within the past few years, research has shown that educational technology does improve children’s learning. The technology provides colorful, eye-catching images and interaction that children love.
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In 2012, a small study in Maine showed that kindergarteners actually improve in literacy more quickly when using iPads. During the study, 16 kindergarten classes participated with 129 students getting to use an iPad for learning.
The other half kept learning through traditional methods. After nine weeks, the students with the iPads actually scored higher on all literacy testing than the students who learned without the iPads.
The key here is that these children were using educational technology specifically targeted at improving their skills. In addition, the children had already developed the basic speech and motor functions needed to attend school. At this age, technology can assist in helping children learn more efficiently, especially visual learners.
At the same time, parents and teachers should take care not to use the technology to distract and entertain the children. This mindless screen time can still affect their interaction and bonding with other people.
For the most part, children should stay clear of technology in favor of interaction and active play. While school-age children can benefit from the support of technology, new research shows that younger children will experience developmental delays. Families should disconnect and spend quality time together instead. If they do so, they will strengthen their relationships and learn to spend quality time together.