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A Bad Babysitter in Any Era

As a father and child psychologist, I understand the incredible demands and stresses of raising young children. For some marketers, these difficulties create an opportunity to sell parents on the belief that screens are a cost-effective, guilt-free, educating babysitter.
08/16/2015 09:22pm ET | Updated August 16, 2016
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As a father and child psychologist, I understand the incredible demands and stresses of raising young children. For some marketers, these difficulties create an opportunity to sell parents on the belief that screens are a cost-effective, guilt-free, educating babysitter.

An ad for a device using the latest technology promises parents that it will help children become "more interested in school work" and get "better marks in school." This device is also intended to double as a babysitter, since the ad promises it's great for "keeping small fry out of mischief... and out of mother's hair." These claims are actually from a 1950 advertisement promoting what was then the most modern in high-tech screen devices: a Motorola television set.

Unfortunately, the TV has turned out to be a bad babysitter. While limited use of educational programs can benefit kids older than two-and-a-half years of age, the troubling reality is that American toddlers and preschoolers spend long hours sitting before entertainment programming. Children's early years with television also condition them to spend much of the rest of their childhood in front of the TV, with the result being that television detracts from kids' engagement with family, school involvement and success.

The Promise of "New and Improved" Electronic Babysitters

Duplicating the decades-old promises made of TV, marketing for today's smartphones, tablets, baby and preschooler apps claims that mobile devices provide an educational, convenient, low-cost babysitter. Such claims have led to an explosion of mobile use amongst the youngest of children. By the time children reach four years of age, they are already spending more than four hours a day with screens. And like their use of TV, young kids' tech time is weighted towards entertainment. A recent San Jose Mercury article described the life of two-year-old Francisco who spends six hours a day captivated by a smartphone, summoning Ninja Turtles episodes with the swipe of his finger. He prefers technology to playing in his backyard, and as his mom says, "He'll have tantrums if we take the phone away."

Smartphones and tablets, because of their interactive capability, may be even better at occupying children without caregiver attention than TV. But science is revealing that many claims made about the benefits of mobile devices are bogus and that their use comes at a high cost:

  • Interactive tech is promoted as decreasing young kids' TV watching: Yet according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report,

It seems clear that one of the main roles 'new' communication technologies play is to bring more 'old' media content into young people's lives. Being able to access TV online and on mobile platforms [including iPods and smartphones] has led to a substantial increase in the amount of time young people spend watching, to a total of just about four-and-a-half hours a day.

Glance at how young kids use their devices and you'll find them watching TV, a lot of TV, in settings where kids once read a book, ran around outside, or interacted with a parent or caregiver.

  • Mobile devices are claimed to bring children and caregivers together: The truth is that young kids generally use interactive devices alone, reflective of these devices' role as babysitter. According to a Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University report, when looking at how young children (ages 2 to 5) use technologies such as the iPad or iPod touch, researchers found that only about a quarter of parents use the device with their kids at least most of the time. By the time kids reached between the ages of six and 8 years, only 11% of parents use these gadgets with their children at least most of the time. As many of us see in restaurants and other settings, young kids' use of these devices encourages them to be alone -- unnaturally alone -- even in the presence of their family.
  • Mobile devices are asserted to teach young kids tech skills: But as noted by leading child development experts: "There is no evidence that introducing screen technologies in early childhood means children will be more adept when they're older."
  • "Interactive" tech is professed to be better for kids than "passive" TV: For young children, the profoundly absorbing nature of interactive devices can blunt their natural desire to seek interaction with parents and other caregivers. As described by ABC Television Nightline staff when they observed three- to five-year old kids using an iPad at the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, "Many of the kids were so zoned in on the apps they were playing with, they didn't respond to the researchers at all." Video from the story shows the troubling, but familiar to many parents, sight of iPad-involved kids oblivious to an adult repeatedly calling their name.
  • Old or New, Screens Are Bad Babysitters

    Because of the vital importance of young children's interactions with loving caregivers, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University reports that young children frequently left for hours at a time in front of the TV are prey to a type of understimulation that can damage brain development. Yet mobile devices -- which are increasingly viewed as having addictive potential -- may be even more effective than TV at pulling young kids away from what they need most.

    Much like the effects of TV, providing young children mobile devices also primes them to overuse entertainment tech as they get older. Today's teens, introduced to gadgets at younger ages than any other generation, now spend an incredible 8 hours each day playing with their screens and phones at the expense of engaging with family and doing well in school. The bottom line is that, in spite of a lot of promises, mobile devices are just as bad or worse babysitters than TV. This is not a convenient truth, but it's one that parents deserve to know.