Should Babies and Tots Use Cell Phones and Digital Devices?


This holiday season, there will be lots of delighted squeals when someone in the family opens a package containing a new mobile digital device. Often, those squeals are from toddlers and even babies who are as mesmerized by new technology as their parents and older siblings.

Young children have an uncanny ability to manipulate touch screens, and programmers are responding with a robust collection of so-called baby apps. All of this begs the question: Is mobile access to interactive technology good for little people?

For many parents, a first rush of pride — look what he can do! — gives way to unease, especially when kids clamor constantly for the phone.  A recent article in the New York Times told the story of one tot who hid her mom’s phone under her bed so she would be able to use it whenever she wanted.

Research findings about how cell phones and other mobile devices impact young brains are years away. In the meantime, parents can draw on what we do know about child development to make wise decisions on behalf of kids. Here are some suggestions:

Defer to development. Common sense says you shouldn’t give electronic equipment to someone who drools or reflexively puts things in his or her mouth. Ditto for the child who is still conducting if-I-drop-this-what-will-happen experiments.

Maintain ownership. Unless the child is paying the bills, the phone belongs to the parent. (Older children should be reminded about this rule, too.) Yes, a young child will want to use the phone just because you use it.  That doesn’t mean you have to share. You set limits about lipstick, sharp knives, the TV remote and other things that are “not for children” or “only for children under certain circumstances.” Instead of routinely handing over the phone to your child, spend some time thinking about whether and when you want to allow access.

Pick your time and place. Young children often accompany their parents to places that strain children’s patience. Even a car ride can be a trial for a toddler. In these settings, a mobile device may be a merciful way to pass the time. It’s also an opportunity for parents to establish limits: “You can hold Mommy’s phone while we’re in the car and then you’ll give it back to Mommy.” Like other limits, this will work only if you enforce it. The best way to create a cell phone junkie is to give your child random access to the device. Instead, think through the rules you want to establish. Keep them simple. Be consistent.

Encourage mobility. Despite their name, mobile devices actually discourage mobility. Kids who use them tend to stay planted firmly on their fannies, staring at a tiny screen.  The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend that children under 2 have no time in front of screens of any size. For children older than 2, the recommended daily allowance is one hour. Both of these rules are regularly violated even by very conscientious parents, in part because everyone — including those parents — needs a little downtime now and then. Kids, however, need much, much more uptime. A child who is running, climbing, bouncing and playing may need more supervision than one who is glued to a screen, but research shows that active play promotes both physical and mental development. Screen time may also promote certain kinds of development, but the benefits are unclear and unconfirmed, so moderation makes sense.

Talk! Of all the things children learn in their first six years, language is one of the most important. Here the research is crystal clear. Talking to young children — even infants — encourages more rapid and more complex neural development. Fooling with a mobile device or, for that matter, any other toy is more enriching if parents talk about what’s happening and, with older children, encourage them to talk, too. Not only is this fun, but it lays the groundwork for the idea that, instead of being the main event, technology is valuable because it supports relationships.

Choose appropriately. If you do want to amuse a young child with a mobile interactive device, you’ll have no problem finding apps designed for children. Apple’s App Store has a special section for Mom and Dad, and reviews apps for Blackberry, Android and other cellphones. Don’t be seduced by claims that these tiny programs are “educational.”  Getting a jump start on math facts or spelling words may give parents bragging rights, but really doesn’t contribute much to the thinking skills kids need to succeed in school much less the world at large. Instead, choose apps with the same criteria you’d apply to a picture book. Is it colorful? Is it playful? Is it age-appropriate? Does it reflect the values you want to nurture in your child?

Despite innovations in technology, the ingredients for a good childhood remain surprisingly constant: loving, engaged parents; sensible, consistent limits; safe and abundant opportunities to explore the world. For children who have those essentials in place, a little time spent with — or without — a mobile interactive device won’t much matter.

Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.

Categories: BT Development, Health and Development