How young is too young to have a mobile device?

Tech Talk Tuesday #90: How young is too young to have a mobile device?

Last week Common Sense Media released the results from their latest survey: Media Use by Kids Age Zero to Eight. While the results are not surprising, they are troubling. 

What I found most interesting is that almost half of kids eight years old and under have their own mobile device (this includes all types of mobile electronics including smartphones). What are the concerns of this new mobile reality?

First, we have to fully accept the intensity with which youth desire today’s fast-paced and interactive screen time. I hear of one and a half-year-olds standing up in their cribs yelling, “iPad, iPad” not “Mommy” or “Daddy.” Screen time plays directly into the pleasure parts of children’s brains. They want high excitement and flashing lights—they want dopamine secreted in the nucleus accumbens of their brain.

Now that this dopamine pump can travel everywhere with a child, it means as parents we have two choices: hand the device over and quiet the child or, set clear guidelines and work to stick to them. This is not easy, and this is exactly what Screenagers is all about. In the movie, I explore the science of screen time but also what the science of parenting tells us about how to set and stay within limits. 

There are several ways that limiting the use of mobile devices outside the home can help young kids' development:

  1. When our kids cry or whine in public, and we hand them a screen to quiet them, we are promoting a quick fix mentality to treating their uncomfortable feelings. Showing our children how to find other ways to alleviate these emotions will possibly save them in the long run from using unhealthy remedies in emotionally charged situations. 
  2. While we can fool ourselves into thinking the screen is opening new worlds for our young kids, it actually might be diminishing their experiences. When out at the grocery store there are benefits to having kids ponder why water sprays the produce and how fun it is to talk to the cashier. In my work as a doctor, I gently ask kids to put their screens away and that I want them to see the cool things about being in the health world.
  3. Also, a recent study of toddlers and mobile devices shows a negative link between the use of mobile devices and expressive language skills. The researchers looked at nine hundred 18 month-year-olds of which 20% used mobile devices. They found that toddlers who did not use mobile devices had significantly better language skills than the 20% who did interact with screens. There are many reasons why there would be this finding, but I bring it up as something to consider.

So how young is too young for a mobile device? I prefer instead to think about how often do we give youth mobile devices to use outside the home? I can’t give an exact age, but I can say that particularly for toddlers, the more mobile devices are not mobile, the better. 

Here are some questions to get a conversation started with your kids about these issues:

  • How old do you think kids should be before they start using a mobile device outside of the home? 
  • When you are out and you don’t have a device, at the grocery store or waiting in line for example, are there any benefits to being screen-free? 
  • Do you think you are a role-model for someone?