child smartphone

A little boy sitting with his parents at a restaurant starts to get bored. It’s not long before he begins the routine that every two-year-old has down pat: throwing the silverware on the floor, climbing out of his chair and crawling around under the table. Dad looks at Mom, she nods in approval, and Dad hands over his smartphone to the toddler. The child beams and seconds later, complete silence reigns.

Surely we’ve all witnessed a scene like this one. But what we’re all wondering is, Am I really a bad parent if I use this mesmerizing tool of the new millennium?

There’s a lot of skepticism about the use of new technologies, for example, in the field of education. Experts all agree that face-to-face interactions have far greater impact on the development of both hard and soft skills in children. Experiments have shown that a two-year-old who watches a video with his mother explaining how to find a hidden object has more difficulty following her instructions than when his mother is there in the room with him. There are studies that have determined that children under age 2½ don’t entirely understand the two-dimensional format of a screen. What’s more, the American Academy of Pediatrics takes a rather strong stand against TV for children under age 2.

In the same line of research, a study conducted by Patricia K. Kuhl attempted to discover how babies acquire language. The experiment consisted of exposing children ages 6 to 12 months to a foreign language. In the first experiment, over the course of 12 laboratory sessions, American babies were exposed to people who spoke to them in Mandarin Chinese, in a situation similar to having Chinese relatives come to visit for a few weeks. In a second experiment, the children were exposed to the same foreign language speakers and materials through audiovisual and sound recordings. The results showed that exposure to Mandarin did have an effect on the babies who interacted directly with the foreign language speakers, but no effect was noted when using videos and audio recordings. This suggests that the learning process requires social interaction.

Research such as this leads us to believe that technologies do not contribute to a child’s development; yet, last year the British Medical Journal published an interesting study that found no association between the use of age-appropriate videogames and conduct problems in children between the ages of 5 and 7. However, it was found that children in this same age group who watched three or more hours of TV or videos per day had a higher likelihood of behavioral problems. These results were based on an analysis of data from the Millennium Cohort Study, a longitudinal study conducted by a British research center that has been tracking 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001.

Although there seems to be sufficient research about the limited impact of television, videos and other one-way communication tools on children’s cognitive development and learning, evidence is still scarce with regard to the benefits of two-way or interactive technologies. In other words, few studies have examined TV and videogames separately to see if they have similar effects. Each technology allows for different interactions with users; therefore, the various options should be evaluated individually.

Armed with the information presented above, we can return to our initial question. The smartphone is so, well, smart that it serves up both interactive and passive media. So, if your kid watches the same YouTube video of Frozen on your phone for more than three hours per day, the only one developing in any way will be you…developing a headache, that is, after listening to the same theme song for the millionth time. Now, if the child uses the device in question to access interactive media, e.g., age-appropriate apps, there is no evidence that this will become a problem. Of course, as common sense dictates, we must keep in mind the principle of “all things in moderation,” with the understanding that no technology can take the place of human interaction.

There’s still not enough research on the impact of interactive technologies used for learning and development in children under 3. If you are a researcher, please share this post. Maybe one of your colleagues will be encouraged to research this issue and share the results with us.

Serrana Mujica is the communication´s officer of the IDB´s Social Protection and Health Division.

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