On smartphones, tablets and very young children

A recent survey found that for toddlers up to the age of 3, each hour spent playing on a touchscreen the child slept a total of 15 minutes less.

A recent study in the journal Scientific Reports has people wondering whether we might be adversely affecting the brain development of our kids because of the time they are spending using a smartphone or tablet.

In a survey of 715 parents of toddlers up to the age of 3, researchers from the University of London asked them how often their children played with these devices and how much sleep the kids got. It showed that 75 per cent of the toddlers used a touchscreen on a daily basis — 51 per cent of those between six and 11 months, and 92 per cent of those between 25 and 36 months.

They found that on average for each hour spent playing on the touchscreen the child slept a total of 15 minutes less. The pattern of sleep was also shifted. They slept less at night and more during the day. On a positive note, those playing with touchscreens that required the child to interact with the screen by swiping did seem to develop their fine motor skills more quickly.

Here’s where the authors took a huge leap: They conjectured that since sleep in childhood is key to brain development, the loss of sleep would affect the development of the children but they had not shown that in this study nor could they prove that it was the use of the devices that had caused the loss of sleep.

We’ve discussed in the past how observational studies like this can only show an association but cannot prove cause and effect. Who knows whether there is some other factor at work. For example, perhaps the kids who use the touchscreens the most are already hyperactive and that’s why they sleep less. Also, this study only showed a decrease in the amount of sleep. It showed no effect — yet — on the childrens’ development.

So, for now the best suggestion is to follow the advice that we’ve already shared about videos, TV watching and video games:

  • Limit the amount of time that your child stays seated in front of any device;
  • Give them ample opportunities to interact with outer living things; and,
  • Get them outside and running about.

Seems like reasonable advice — even now.

Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Surgery, McGill Medical School and an Attending Physician, Emergency Department, McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.

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