Research Review: Mobile Devices and Social Development in Young Children

Everyone is talking technology today, whether they’re excited about benefits or cringing at its unavoidability. It’s easy for parents to feel confused about the benefits and negative consequences of technology use with their children.

On the one hand, they don’t want their children to miss out on these exciting opportunities or developing familiarity with them for future use. On the other hand, they have questions about health and safety issues ranging from time spent in front of the screen to contacts made with others online. Aside from the observations they make from experience, parents may wonder what the research says about technology use and young children.

Unfortunately, the impact that mobile devices are having on the development and behavior of children is still relatively unknown. With regard to television and video usage, it has long been known that children under the age of 30 months cannot learn from them as well as they can from real-life interactions. While some research now suggests that electronic books and learn-to-read applications can be useful in teaching vocabulary and reading comprehension, that is only true for children preschool-age or older. Few studies have been done for children under the age of two, but it is well known that infants and toddlers learn best through hands-on and face-to-face experiences.

To be sure, there are definite educational benefits to be gained from interactive media applications; but there are also recognized dangers associated with their overuse. This is especially true when mobile devices become primary recreational resources. The negative connotations of television as a “third parent” apply to interactive media as well, and for many of the same reasons. It has been well studied, for example, that increased television time decreases a child’s development of language and social skills. This is true for mobile devices as well.  The use of mobile devices as the main method to calm and distract young children may also negatively impact their development, as it prevents them from learning to self-soothe and regulate themselves without resorting to the instant gratification of passive devices.

While much remains unknown, many researchers and practitioners have begun to question whether increased use of interactive media by young children is interfering with their development of empathy, problem solving and social skills that are typically obtained by exploring, unstructured play, and interacting with others. Excessive screen time reduces the amount of hands-on activities important for the development of sensorimotor and visual-motor skills, which are also important for future academic learning. Although it may seem that there are more questions than answers when it comes to interactive media and young children, research would seem to suggest that unplugged family time continues to be a major requirement for childhood development. Parents should make engagement in real-life stimulation and activities a greater priority for their children than interactive media exposure.

Reference:

Radesky, J.S., Schumacher, J., & Zuckerman, B. (2015). Mobile and interactive media use by young children: the good, the bad, and the unknown. Pediatrics, 135(1), 1-3. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-2251

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