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The Whole Truth About Babies and Apps

Posted by on in Latest Research

Megha Suri* never leaves home without her smartphone, especially when she is out with her 2½- year-old son. Suri’s phone is more than just a calling device. It is her rescue plan when her son gets wildly upset. Suri quickly turns to her son’s favourite apps that keep him engaged for atleast as long as it takes her to finish a meal or wrap up a trip to the store.

A screenshot of I Hear Ewe on iPad A screenshot of I Hear Ewe on iPad

Exhausted moms and dads, living in nuclear families, can easily identify with this situation. However, this isn’t the only reason why parents are handing over their phones to tiny tots. Many truly believe that their iPhone or Android is an entertainer, an educator and the ultimate brain booster all rolled into one.


Indeed, mobile applications such as My Baby Piano and I Hear Ewe do seem quite harmless. For instance, on I Hear Ewe animals come to life when your baby touches them. The parrot squawks, the monkey screams, the lion roars and it’s as good as making a trip to the zoo. Your 2-year-old also seems delighted when she gets to watch about 50 nursery rhymes                                                                   come alive on YouTube videos.


Parents argue that technology is this generation’s future and that the earlier kids learn to use these gadgets, the better. Some apps even claim to boost your child's development.


So why are researchers playing spoilsport and advising against apps for the very young?


‘Smartphones don’t make smart babies’, declared an advocacy group. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood counters claims by major brands, that mobile apps help babies learn.


Indeed, experts warn that other than improving hand-eye coordination, there is little that these mobile apps do. No studies have documented benefits of early viewing of such programmes. On the contrary, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns that a study has found that infant videos can delay language development. The AAP discourages any electronic “screen time” for infants and toddlers under 2 years of age, while older children should be limited to one to two hours a day.


Another disturbing aspect is that watching screens, such as mobile phone apps, TVs and YouTube videos, leaves your child sort of hypnotized. Jane Healy, author of Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think—and What We Can Do About It, refers to the phenomenon as the “zombie effect,” suggesting that screens “suppress mental activity by putting viewers in a trance.”


Josh Golin, Associate Director, Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, identifies the real problem with apps in a Huffington Post article. He writes, “Time spent with media takes time away from activities, like hands-on creative play or face-time with caring adults that have proved beneficial for infant learning.”


What does my toddler really need?


Your child’s early years are the most critical for brain development. The basic architecture of the human brain develops through a process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Early experiences shape how the brain develops. Neurons that are left unused fail to form synaptic connections essential to brain development. So, how your baby spends time has lifelong consequences.


A study from the Children’s Media Center at Georgetown University, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology showed that interactivity and adult modelling helped children to learn a task better than passive viewing of the same material. While many mobile apps claim to be ‘interactive’, in reality they are only a set of pre-determined actions. The ‘interactivity’ as such is limited and this restrains your child’s creativity. So, more and more studies on healthy brain development are pointing away from screens.


What’s more, studies show that infants and toddlers learn best by exploring with their whole bodies i.e all their senses. This learning is enhanced by a face-to-face positive interaction with a caregiver.


But the whole world has gone digital!


Yes, screen time is here to stay and we can’t ignore it. Even schools have begun replacing textbooks with iPads and digital texts.


As parents, your job is to understand your child’s needs and make the right choices. For instance, while experts discourage apps for infants, a suitable app can help reinforce educational lessons for your school-going child. So if you have been teaching your child the alphabet or numbers, a related app can assist that learning. But it’s not a substitute for human interaction or reading or play.


When your child indulges in screen time it doesn’t have to be a passive activity. Keep up the chatter by adding your own commentary to what’s happening on a nursery rhyme video or an app. Ask your child questions so his mind remains active and alert. Or point at objects so he can learn new words. When your child tries to initiate conversation and asks you questions, you’ll know that you’re on the right track.


Sometimes you may even want to resort to digital devices the way Suri does, and that’s alright. Don’t take off on a guilt-trip if you hand over an iPad to your 2-year-old in exchange for a quiet moment to breathe. However, understand that these devices must be an exception in your child’s life, one that includes social interaction, active play and reading. You should also be aware that developers don’t specify what ages their apps are geared towards. So, be a critical parent when you download apps for your kids.


Do the best you can to strike a balance!


Drop us a line about your app-perience in the comment box below. What are the best apps you’ve found for kids?

*Name changed to maintain privacy.


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Guest Saturday, 17 March 2018