Are Digital Devices Causing Developmental Delays?

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In a society that's constantly connected to devices, children are bound to face increasing amounts of screen time. So it's no surprise that hand-held digital devices play an increasing role in children's health and development.

Studies suggest that increasing mobile device use among young children could lead to developmental delays. But the devices themselves may not be the problem. Instead, increasing time spent in front of a screen means less time for brain-bolstering, real-life activities.

"In young children, especially those under age 2, face-to-face social interaction and hands-on exploration is developmentally critical," says Ashley Falco, M.D., a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health System. "All areas of development including social-emotional, language, cognitive and even motor skills are linked to unstructured play with a trusted caregiver."

The Drawbacks of Digital Devices

So how much time should children should spend in front of a screen? Does digital media even have a role in the life of a developing child? Research confirms that excessive screen time can have detrimental effects in the following areas:

  1. Speech: Studies link increasing screen time with delays in expressive speech, including how children use sounds and words and how they string together words to communicate. Children who can't express themselves tend to get more easily frustrated and they may be more likely to act out and misbehave to get their needs met.
  2. Social development: "Interaction between a child and caregiver halts when one party is watching television or focusing on a digital device," says Dr. Falco. "This includes loss of facial expression and loss of body language exchanges, which are key for children to learn in order to interpret social cues."
  3. Focus and attention: Children typically don't learn higher-level executive skills such as impulse control, emotional regulation and flexible thinking from digital media. They learn those things through unstructured play in an environment with regular child-parent interaction. "While it's true that children are attracted to the blinking lights and bright colors a screen provides, a baby's brain is unable to establish a relationship between symbols on a screen and real-life equivalents before 18 months of life," says Dr. Falco.
  4. Physical health: A child who is sitting in front of a screen isn't outdoors playing hide-and-seek. Not only do hand-held devices encourage inactivity, they may also contribute to a child becoming overweight or obese.
  5. Sleep: Sufficient sleep is essential for proper growth and development. It also helps stave off tantrums and encourages healthy interactions. Unfortunately, screens and devices are not only linked with shorter sleep duration, but also lower quality sleep. Digital devices emit blue light, which interferes with the body's natural sleep-wake cycles, and they're also psychologically stimulating.

Devices as a Communication Tool

Before you disable your phone, it's important to realize that a subset of kids can benefit from using digital devices. "Children with autism, speech or language delays, or developmental disabilities can use assistive devices to communicate in ways they were never able to before," says Dr. Falco.

Unfortunately, this same group of children has an increased risk of developing problematic media use — and parents can unknowingly feed that. After all, parents may resort to giving difficult or defiant children a mobile device to help calm them down or distract them.

"It's important for parents to have clear boundaries around media usage," Dr. Falco says. A behavioral specialist or educator can help parents use assistive communication devices to provide a voice for these children.

Becoming Device Savvy

Mobile and screen technology isn't going anywhere. If anything, we're all becoming increasingly reliant on our devices. But as technology continues to evolve, parents need to reassess their views about their child's media use.

"Direct involvement in your child's media use is integral to healthy use and normal social-emotional development," says Dr. Falco. Using mobile technology as a tool for learning and development rather than a form of entertainment can help encourage healthy development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Council on Communications and Media have set guidelines in this regard. The highlights:

  • Avoid all digital media (except video chatting) in children younger than 18-24 months.
  • For children between the ages of 2 and 5, limit screen time and digital media use to 1 hour of high-quality programming per day — and watch with your child.
  • For children over age 5, limit screen time to less than 2 hours per day (excluding academic requirements).
  • Avoid using media as a soothing strategy for your child.
  • Make bedrooms and mealtime screen-free.
  • Turn off all screens 1 hour prior to bedtime.
  • Develop a Family Media Use Plan and consistently follow it.

When it comes to childhood media usage, content is key. In children between the ages of 3 and 5, well-designed, educational-specific television programs and apps can improve cognitive, literacy and social outcomes.

"It's important for parents to be selective," Dr. Falco says. "Just because a program or app is listed as 'educational' does not mean it's high-quality content. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and Sesame Workshop apps provide quality content designed by educators and developmental specialists to encourage interactive parent-child media use.”


Unclear about how to best use media with your children? To find a pediatrician or developmental specialist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Dr. Ashley Falco is a board-certified pediatrician seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Pierson in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Categories: ParentWell

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