Why We Should Focus On Our Babies, Not Our Screens

Kids can reap many benefits from using apps -- once they hit a certain age.

No matter how many different ways we ask the question, the answer from child development experts remains the same: humans under age 2 learn best from people, not screens. 

"The real emphasis shouldn't be on the taking away of screens," Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, recently said on HuffPost Live. "The emphasis should be on interacting with kids."

As Dr. McCarthy and many other pediatricians -- including the American Academy of Pediatrics -- acknowledge, modern life is saturated with technology and some screen time is inevitable. As parents evaluate how computers, apps, games, mobile devices and educational technology are integrated into modern family life and schooling, we'll need to focus more on what's on the screens as opposed to how they are used.

When it comes to babies, however, the focus needs to be on them. Passive consumption of videos or games by either child or parent cannot replace active parenting and comfort.

"We know that during those first couple of years, it's the interactions between babies and caregivers that really strengthens the connections in the brain," McCarthy said.

"When screens get in the way, it can get in the way of those interactions," she added. "It's not that screens are evil, it's just that screens can displace the things that babies so desperately need."

While smartphones are a relatively new addition to families, televisions are not.

"In the world of television research for half a century, we've known that content is king," said Heather Kirkorian, director of cognitive development at the Media Lab at the University of Wisconsin. "What kids are watching matters a whole lot more than whether they're watching."

When it comes to screens, Kirkorian emphasized the need to look at both the context and content. (And no matter what size the screen is, some kinds of content, like graphic pornography and violence, will never be appropriate for very young children.) 

"Having a television on in the background while a child is on the floor playing with toys has a very different impact than a child watching an educational program or a child interacting with a parent around some sort of creativity app," she said. "Treating screens as if they're created equal or screen activities as if they're equal really doesn't reflect the best research."

Treating screens as if they're created equal, or screen activities as if they're equal, really doesn't reflect the best research.

Content matters on mobile devices, too. While "very little" research exists on children under 3 and interactive media, "the content that they're using on mobile devices seems to be much more important than whether they're using a mobile device," she said. 

The body of research Kirkorian has seen and conducted shows that children under 2 don't learn much from non-interactive screen media, she said. But new research suggests that children 24 months and older may benefit more from a well-designed interactive app than from a non-interactive video. 

"We think that not only the content itself but the delivery of that content matters," she said.

On that count, it now makes sense to think about family's media diet, much in the same way we think about the food we consume.

"Thinking about the media diet, part of our jobs as parents is to teach out kids to eat their vegetables and what a healthy dies is," McCarthy suggested. "Part of parenting these days is teaching kids how to use technology well."

In other words, parents need to practice screen sense ourselves, modeling healthy ways to integrate technology into our lives at home, work and play. If we're staring at screens, we're not interacting with our kids. This one of several habits I've had to work hard on correcting around my daughter.

This isn't a hard-and-fast rule: sometimes, we have to take phone calls. That's been true as long as we've had phones, let alone smart ones. For millennia, there have been situations where parents have had to focus elsewhere from their offspring, from gathering food to finding shelter to dealing with crises. That's not going to change.

But whenever we choose to use social media, play games or watch videos instead of focus on our young children, we're reducing the number of interactions that pediatricians and psychiatrists say are crucial for brain growth and the formation of attachments. 

"The goal in the first two years of life is to attach to at least one primary care giver, and have a healthy attachment," Dr. Jodi Gold told host Nancy Redd.

I don't think that kids under the age of 2 are getting anything educationally out of technology.

"The goal in the first two years of life is to attach to at least one primary care giver, and have a healthy attachment," Dr. Jodi Gold told host Nancy Redd.

"There's a great deal of research that shows that kids who have healthy attachments go on to have healthy relationships. They do better cognitively, socially and academically as they grow up," she said. "The concern about 0-2 year olds is that technology somehow impairs the development of health attachment. As long as you can be present with your child, face to face, and not let it interfere, then having a little bit of it is probably not going to be harmful."

Her allowance about having a "little bit" of screen time is worth emphasizing, since it was a continuing thread throughout the show and comes up in many discussions of modern parenting.

As parents, we have to talk about what's happening on screens and what relevance it has to our children building cognitive development or relevant academic and professional skills. In her widely shared post on screen addiction, New York Times columnist Jane Brody decried the negative aspects of devices without listing many of the positive ways they can help children to learn and connect with other children or to educational opportunities. (Not surprisingly, bloggers like Jason Kottke and John Hermann found that omission problematic.) As kids get older, they can have many wonderful interactions mediated by screen, like when kids get together to build and play with Minecraft.

As Redd said, sometimes the world presents challenges regarding technology and parenting that have no easy answers. What if building competency with screens in early childhood is a relevant skill for toddlers? 

In New York, this is no longer a theoretical question. Since 1966, children applying to private schools in the city have been taking the Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners (AABL), a test of math and literacy. A new version of the AABL introduced last October, however, isn't just meant to measure knowledge: it is administered and assessed on an iPad, not paper. (While the AABL isn't mandatory -- in 2014, some private schools dropped the requirement for the AABL -- many parents are still preparing their children for it.)

Redd is concerned that her 4-year-old and others who've had limited screen time will be at a disadvantage because they haven't built up touchscreen skills for the test. Given the cost of an iPad, there's an obvious class issue in play here.

It's hard to avoid concluding that the most likely outcome will be wealthier parents investing in tutoring their young children in the use of iPads. For parents concerned that their toddler will fall behind, starting guided instruction on tablets around age three may be appropriate.

"I don't think that kids under the age of 2 are getting anything educationally out of technology," Gold said. "They're exposed to it under 2, but not learning from it... I think iPad is useful in cognitive development over the age of 3."

That makes sense to me. As a boy, I spent hundreds of hours of hours using my Apple II+ for both games and learning. I also read a lot of books. It's far too easy to set up false dichotomous choices around our technology use. Let's look at what's on that screen and the extent to which parents and children are engaged in talking about it; whether they're building things with other children or fragging aliens in a shooting game. There are many different uses, including those that may be setting kids up for terrific careers.

When it comes to children under 2, however, the consensus of experts is that, when we can, we need to focus on being with our children rather than our devices. As a father whose daughter just passed through those first two magic years, I can promise that you'll never regret that time investment.