Smartphones, tablets might not be bad for kids after all

A respected group of pediatricians that previously warned against the use of electronic devices by kids has changed its tune, but other experts suggest old school toys and books are still better options.

kid with tablet opt
Credit: The open mind

Can spending too much time with a smartphone or tablet negatively affect child development? That depends on the expert you ask.

Until recently, the influential American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) took a strong negative stance on screen time for kids. However, the group has softened its position. In a research paper the academy released earlier this month, it wrote, "[d]igital media can be used to facilitate executive function (reasoning and problem solving), build self-control and problem-solving skills, and improve children's ability to follow directions."

A change of tune on children and digital displays

The paper does not exactly deliver a ringing endorsement of digital gadgets for kids, but it represents a significant change from another previous, well-publicized publication from AAP. In its 2013 paper, the academy said "the evidence is now clear that they (media) can and do contribute substantially to many different risks and health problems and that children and teenagers learn from, and may be negatively influenced by the media." It then advised parents to:

  • Limit the amount of total entertainment screen time to less than two hours per day
  • Discourage screen media exposure for children younger than two years old
  • Keep the TV set and Internet-connected electronic devices out of children's bedrooms

So why the change of heart? In the two years following that 2013 paper, smartphones and tablets became nearly ubiquitous. In May, the academy convened a symposium of "leading social science, neuroscience, and media researchers, educators, pediatricians, thought leaders, and representatives from key partner organizations" to reexamine the issue.

Among the other recent findings, the panel says "[p]arents should let their children teach them about media and participate with them. Media should be viewed as a tool rather than a babysitter, reward, or punishment."

Lasting effects of smartphones, tablets on kids still unclear

Other experts maintain that digital screen time may still be problematic for young children. In a paper published in September by the Brookings Institute, a group of researchers argued that simple, traditional toys, such as building blocks, are much better for development than electronic devices. They also found that "when parents read ebooks rather than traditional books to their three-year-olds, their children are less likely to follow the plotline."

The researchers conceded that more study is needed, and they concluded their paper with this bit of basic advice: "Play that is 90 percent toy and 10 percent parent-child is not as educational as play that is 90 percent parent-child and 10 percent toy."

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