Infants and the Digital World

At the end of November 2018 the first of three programmes, focusing on the under-twos and entitled Babies: Their Wonderful World, was televised. I was looking forward to the programmes, which I hoped would explore the rapid development of a baby’s brain in the first two years of life and how consistent, sensitive loving care by main caregivers promotes a secure attachment which sets the foundation for the baby’s emotional, mental and physical development and promotes self regulation, empathy and resilience.

 

A variety of “scientific experiments” were shown. One involved six infants between the ages of 18 and 24 months; it was to identify if tapping and swiping of touch screens helped develop fine motor skills.  Three babies, who regularly used touch screens, were shown handling crayons to draw a straight line, and creating a tower with building blocks, more skillfully than three babies who had never been exposed to touch screens. This was used as evidence that touch screens ‘may not be all bad news’.

 

I was surprised and concerned, as I felt that this would encourage parents to allow their infants   under two to access smart phones and tablets.  All infants will develop fine motor skills without the use of touch screens, and time spent on these devices may displace face-to-face contact with their parents or caregivers. These devices are very prone to be habit forming, and habits formed in the early years are harder to break later in life. No one knows what the long term consequences for physical and mental health may be. The programme had already stated, “What happens in the first two years of life lays the foundation for everything to come”.

 

There is a lot of debate about young children’s access to screen time, whether it is mobile phones, tablets or other screens like television.  Professionals and experts are divided on this issue, some considering it toxic and other saying that there is no evidence of harm. At the moment there is no authoritative guidance in the UK.

 

In January the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published a guide – The health impact of screen time:  a guide for clinicians and parents.  They undertook a comprehensive review of the evidence of the impact of screen time on children’s physical and mental health and they consulted 109 children and young people between the ages of 11 and 24 years. There was little focus, if any, on the impact screen time had on young children, and the screen time identified in the research was mainly television.  Their conclusion was that there was not sufficient good quality research evidence to give age associated guidelines and more research was urgently needed. An information sheet for parents was produced, but this had little relevance to children under two. The prime recommendation from the RCPCH was that “families should negotiate screen time limits with their children”   – not very helpful guidance for parents of children  under twos?

 

Some other countries have issued advice and guidance:  In 2016 the American Academy of Paediatrics advised no screen time for children under 18 months and a maximum of one hour a day for children from 18 months to 5 years, ideally with an adult present and involved.  In Australia the advice is for no screen time for the under-twos.  In Canada in 2017 The Canadian Paediatric Society Digital Health Task Force reviewed the available research evidence for screen time and the under-fives. Their recommendation, which they based on the evidence available and expert opinion, was that there should be no screen time for the under-twos and one hour a day for 2 to 5 year olds.

 

Further exploration in the area of touch screens and digital media produced some data that alarmed me. Birkbeck University Babylab, as part of a research project, collected information by an online survey from 700 parents about touch screens usage, the findings being as follows:

  • 51% of infants between 6 months and 11 months used touch screens daily (for an average time of 8.5 minutes daily)
  • 92% of infants between 26 months and 36 months used touch screen daily (for an average of 44 minutes daily)
  • nearly 10% of under-threes had their own touch screen

e figures illustrate the how touch screen time increases significantly with increasing a

This month the UK chief medical officers have published advice for parents and carers on screen based activities. They acknowledge that there is insufficient published scientific research to support evidence based guidelines, but are aware of the concerns within our society about screen time and mental health and, therefore, the need for some guidance. It does not address the needs of very young children and touch screens.

 

Surely, now there is a need to follow other countries and give specific age related guidance for very young children and screen time, even if there is insufficient published research for an evidence based guideline.