Mobile screens: Do they really turn your kids' brains to mush?

From CNET Magazine: Babies and toddlers love looking at the screens of tablets and smartphones -- but doctors warn that too much screen time could cause problems later in life. How much is too much?

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
4 min read

Screen media can be addictive, so set time limits and stick to them -- and don't let those screens supplant time spent with friends and family. James Martin/CNET

When my 15-year-old daughter was a baby, I let her watch some TV. But I didn't worry about smartphones or tablets. Those devices weren't even around then.

My 2-year-old twins, on the other hand, were born into a world packed with screens on smartphones and other devices. These shiny mobile devices record their milestones, let them chat via video with their grandparents on Google Hangouts and entertain them through apps like Elmo Calls and Peekaboo Barn.

I often joke they never would have crawled if we hadn't dangled an iPhone before them as incentive.

Born 13 years apart, my girls bookend a surge in interactive media pouring out of smartphones, tablets and computers. But one thing hasn't changed. The American Academy of Pediatrics still sticks to its 1999 recommendation that children under 2 should not watch media on screens. The concerns? Too much time in front of a screen might slow language development, cause attention disorders, disrupt sleep, lead to aggressive behavior and promote obesity in preschool and school-age children.

The thing is, the AAP recommendation is based on passive television watching. This made sense in light of research showing TV offers almost no learning benefits for the very young. Now, however, new studies are starting to show that today's interactive screens can actually promote learning.

"It's all happening so quickly that we're calling it the digital Wild West," says Michael Levine, who heads Sesame Workshop's Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit research lab that "focuses on the challenges of educating children in a rapidly changing media landscape."

That leaves parents like me in a quandary. Do I heed the AAP's warning to ensure my daughters' brains won't turn to mush? Or do I focus more on how my kids use screens, rather than whether they do.

Screen time-out

You'd think Apple CEO Steve Jobs' kids would have had free rein to use the iPad. Not so much, according to The New York Times' recounting of a conversation from 2010. "We limit how much technology our kids use at home," Jobs reportedly said not long after Apple's first tablet reached consumers.

While Jobs may have had a rigid attitude about screen time, other tech-savvy parents say they often think about their kids' digital playtime.

"It used to be you only had a screen or two to police," says David Morken, father of six and CEO of Bandwidth, which provides the Republic Wireless mobile-phone service. "Now every screen is potentially an immersive experience."

Mike Abbott, a general partner with venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, ran software development at Palm and oversaw more than 350 engineers at Twitter. So he's not afraid of technology. Yet he wonders how constant distractions from smartphones and smartwatches could affect his 7-year-old daughter.

"Your focus is everywhere and nowhere at the same time," Abbott says. "Personally, that sense of focus was a real benefit in school, in starting companies, in building things."

Life lessons

For many experts, the crux of the issue comes down to how digital play affects young brains.

The AAP rightly points out that time in front of a screen could mean less time doing important things, like playing with blocks or digging in a sandbox. Such creative play encourages mental development in young minds, giving kids a way to explore ideas and find new ways to solve problems.

Seattle pediatrician Dr. Dimitri Christakis, who helped write the no-screens-under-2 warning the AAP reaffirmed in 2011, now says it's OK for toddlers to spend up to an hour a day with smartphones and tablets. In an opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year, he compared interactive apps to physical toys. Both can teach cause and effect and give babies the satisfaction of making something happen.

But Christakis' advice comes with caveats: First, remember screen media can be addictive, so set time limits and stick to them. And second, don't let media supplant time with friends and family in the real world.

"I worry when I'm at a restaurant and I see the entire family on their screens," he says. "There's something that's being displaced there."

Other organizations -- including Zero to Three, Common Sense Media and the National Association for the Education of Young Children -- have released findings supporting Christakis' more-lenient recommendations. None encourages an outright ban on interactive media.


Guilt complex

So how guilty should I feel if I let my twins look at interactive screens for more than 60 minutes a day? A few experts say the rules have some wiggle room.

Christakis, for example, says we don't have to count activities like Skyping with grandparents or cuddling up with a simple e-book as screen time.

And if a little extra media time helps parents get through the day, so be it, says Heather Kirkorian, who led the "Toddlers and Touch Screens:Potential for Early Learning?" study out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "If parents use video for 15 minutes so that they can take a shower in peace and know their kids are safe, maybe we shouldn't make them feel terrible about that."

As the saying goes, "everything in moderation." And until research catches up to the crazy pace of technology, it's going to be up to us parents to figure out just what that means.