Toddlers and Cell Phones: Should Parents Feel Guilty?

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The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that children under the age of 2 should not use screen-based technologies. Recently there has been some softening of this stance, as pediatricians and other healthcare professions are recognizing that moderate use of screen-based technologies will not be harmful to children as long as parents are jointly engaged with them. However the question remains as to whether they may be helpful.

The reality of today’s world is that parents have come to rely on the engaging nature of screen-based technologies to keep their children busy or even sometimes to “babysit” them. In small doses this may not be a problem. But excessive use of television, computers, and other screen-based technologies has clearly been demonstrated to be detrimental to children. Research suggests that having a television on in the background in a home reduces a child’s vocabulary and attention span when they get older. Other research suggests that excessive use of screen-based technologies can reduce vocabulary and language and facility with language.

However there are those times when a parent is attempting to prepare dinner, get the rest of the family ready for school, or needs a few minutes to get dressed to go to work that the use of screen-based technology is a very safe and reliable method for keeping children engaged and out of trouble. Should you feel guilty when you use it as such?

This process was recently illustrated in my work as a clinical psychologist during a family interview in my office. A mother had brought her 12-year-old son to visit with me to discuss his attention difficulties and problems with information processing in school. We were discussing his school history and attempting to learn more about some of the difficulties that caused him to struggle at school. However, it was very difficult to conduct this interview due to his highly-verbal 2-year-old sister, who continuously talked to her mother and to me during the session. I had a hard time ignoring her, as she was funny and precocious and kept asking me questions such as, “Doctor, what kind of car do you drive?”

Her mother was a bit exasperated and attempted to get her to play in my office. Normally, my office is seen by children as a toy store, as there are Legos,  blocks, dollhouses, kitchen sets, sports equipment, action figures, cars, and trucks. In addition there are all types of stuffed animals, collections of rocks and shells to look at, a pretend toolbox, and a variety of art supplies. While the 2-year-old was interested in all these things, she was more interested in talking to the adults.

The child’s mother then said, “Do you want to play with my phone?” At that point the 2-year-old jumped up and down excitedly and said, “I want to play with your phone!” Her mother then asked her to sit next to her and handed her the phone, and she sat quietly and played without a peep for about 15 minutes. She was totally engaged in playing with the phone, and we were able to complete the bulk of our interview. At this point her 12-year-old brother was done with his part of the interview and was able to get up and play with her. She readily went and played with him, talking the whole time she was playing.

I describe this incident for two reasons. First, it reflects the power of digital media for grabbing the attention and focus of children. Many parents recognize this power and can use it appropriately. Secondly, in my mind, there is no reason to believe that this 2-year-old was damaged by playing a casual video game on her mother’s cell phone for 15 minutes. While pretend play with a dollhouse or construction toys may be preferred, the cell phone worked to keep her engaged in a way that enabled us to complete the task at hand.

Parents of younger children are faced with dilemmas like this everyday. Parents who are lucky enough to always have the time to play one-on-one with — and keep an eye on — their children may be able to keep them away from screen-based technologies before the age of 2. However, in the real world (at least for most of us) an occasional use of a “screen” to keep your children occupied and safe is not about to hurt them. While children under the age of 2 are best served by activities that engage their senses and practice motor skills, they might benefit even more from the nutritious dinner that you had time to prepare while they were watching Dora the Explorer.


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