Plugging in tiny brains

It was just a matter of time, I guess.  Fisher Price has just released the iPad bouncy seat for infants.

Although there is currently no published research on the effects of iPads on infant development, the research on infants and television has led psychologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend no screen time for children under the age of 2.

Despite this recommendation, screen time for infants is the norm.  According to national surveys, 40% of babies are viewing television by 3 months of age, with the median age of first viewing at 9 months.  Infants under the age of 1 year watch an average of 49 minutes of television per day, and 30% have a television in their bedroom.  These statistics are several years old, so these numbers are likely even higher today.

Because infants do not have the motor skills to touch and control iPad screens, they cannot be an interactive device.  Therefore, putting an infant in front of an iPad is comparable to putting them in front of a television, and there is reason to believe that the effects of an iPad will parallel the effects of television on infant development.  As such, the research on television is useful for discussing both why the iPad bouncy seat will likely be extremely popular, as well as why it is a terrible idea.

Several years ago, Zimmerman and colleagues conducted a study in which they surveyed parents about the use of TV and DVDs with their infants.  When asked why they had their babies view, many reasons were given.  Here are the top 3 reasons (in order), along with the research-based counterarguments.

Parent Belief #1 = “It is good for their brains”

FALSE.  Research has demonstrated that children under 1 year of age cannot learn from screens, even if they are watching programs aimed at infants, such as Baby Wadsworth.  Researchers have coined the term “video deficit” to describe the inability in experimental settings for infants to learn even simple imitation from 2-D representations such as videos.  (They also can’t learn language from screens).  Similarly, very young children don’t understand content of videos, indicated by their equal preference to view distorted (e.g., played backwards) and non-distorted clips from popular children’s programs.

Although there is no evidence of cognitive benefits of infant screen time, there is accumulating evidence of harmful effects.  Here are just a few:

1. Zimmerman & Christakis (2005) found that TV viewing before age 2 was associated with decreased vocabulary, digit span memory, and reading skills.

2. Barr et al (2010) found that infants exposed to adult TV programs scored lower on cognitive tests and school readiness at age 4.

3. Zimmerman et al (2007) found that each hour of viewing of baby videos was associated with a significant drop in children’s verbal skills.

Parent Belief #2 =  “It is enjoyable for my child”

FALSE.  Parents assume that if an infant stares at a screen and cries when it is removed, that they must be “enjoying” it.  In order to understand why this is a false assumption, one needs to know a little bit about the infant brain.  Infants brains are very reflexive; that is, many infant response are automatic, rather than controlled responses.  For example, until the motor cortex of the brain develops, the movement of the arms and legs is primarily a reflex controlled by the lower areas of the brain.  Infants’ attraction to screens is driven by the visual-orienting reflex.  Our brains our wired to respond to novelty, especially bright colors, loud sounds, and flashing lights.  This is basically a startle reflex, and it accounts for why infants stare at video screens.  It does not mean they are enjoying the stimulation- rather, they are slaves to their own reflexes and actually do not have the control to look away.  This can actually be stressful to infants, and may have harmful effects on a developing brain that has not evolved to tolerate all this stimulation.  For example, although there is not conclusive evidence that early screen time leads to the development of attention problems, it also has not been ruled out as a possibility.  At this point in time, we just don’t know the effects of all this stimulation on the developing brain.

Parent Belief #3  = “I can get things done”

TRUE.  Yes, the iPad bouncy seat will work as a babysitter.  Strap them in, and you can have hours of time to get things done.  But remember who the babysitter is, and what potential harm might result from it.  For thousands of years, parents have managed to get things done without gadgets such as an iPad bouncy seat.  Yes, it may be harder, but no one said parenting was easy.

An additional concern about screen time under the age of 2 is that it displaces parent-infant interaction time.  No gadget or program will ever be better for an infant than face-to-face interaction with a  human.  Experimental research has demonstrated that even having a screen on in the background diminishes eye contact, infant-directed language, and play quality between parents and their babies (for example, see this study).   Media exposure changes the physical and social context of baby’s development by reducing both the quantity and quality of parent-child interactions.  So please, just say “no” to plugging your baby into the iPad bouncy seat.  And spread the word to parents of infants that you know.

[EDIT on December 9:  Looks like there is also an iPad potty seat for toddlers as well. It just got named the worst toy of 2013 by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.]

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Categories: infant media use, media gadgets, Media habits | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Plugging in tiny brains

  1. gwpj

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve shared it on G+, Facebook and Twitter, as I think it’s information that people need to be aware of and, hopefully, use. Your post also reminded me of an incident that happened the other day while my wife and I were walking in downtown Sapporo, Japan. As the light changed for us to cross the street, I noticed a young woman (early 30s) standing next to me. As people began to move, so did she, very slowly, as she was engrossed in her Smartphone or iPhone. I awoke the next morning with a story idea about a young mother out walking with her preschool daughter. As I see so often here, young mothers are engrossed in that tiny screen, so much so that they seem unaware of where they are, and this young mother suddenly awoke, looked around her, and exclaimed: “Where am I? And where is my daughter?” Implausible? Sadly, I don’t think so. The story idea now awaits development.

    • Thanks for your comment! I always find that the best ideas are the ones that come to me when I just wake up. Good luck with your story, it sounds great!

  2. Pingback: iPotty, uPotty, we all scream for iPotty! – Avant Parenting

  3. lathere

    I saw the bouncer and all I could think was that the bleak future of the Pixar movie wall-e might be here sooner rather than later!

  4. Thanks for exposing this new dangerous products for babies. Parents needs to give lots of love, caring and educational guidance and experience the world, not just become little zombies! Plus EMF’s (electromagnetic frequencies…radiation) are dangerous the younger children are…so parents beware and do your research.

  5. Pingback: “Plugging in Tiny Brains” | Whole Child Action

  6. Kaytlin

    In a world with TV everywhere its so hard to keep my baby from watching TV. My boyfriend insists we have TV and have it on while the baby is around we just make sure he dosent see the screan. If it were up to me we wouldn’t have TV. Also when I go to other peoples places you would not belive how much I get judged for no TV. I have even been called mean after I explain why I don’t want him watching. Sorry I don’t want my 5 month old watching TV. I think people let him watch TV behind my back too. Its sad that the world is so attached to screans that my child has to be forced to watch.

    • Kaytlin, I so empathize with you. It is difficult to parent when you do not feel supported by those around you, and society at large. I had an earlier post, The Inescapable Screen, that expressed some of my frustration about this. Keep up the good work- you know what is best for your baby!

  7. Such a well-written post that succinctly states the real issues and substantiates them with research. I wrote a similar post some time ago, before the advent of the bouncy seat. I am so thrilled to have found this blog. Such a wealth of information.

  8. Rita

    I don’t think it just hinders development in babies. How many pictures have I seen of family gatherings where the adults are focused on their phones and not on who is actually present. A blessing can also become a curse if done to excess.

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