The Continuing Debate Over The Use Of Touchscreens With Babies

04/04/2017 14:57 BST | Updated 04/04/2017 14:57 BST

The answer to whether touchscreens (iPads, smartphones or tablets) should be used from birth can be broken down into four major considerations: the context of their use, content of the activities, developmental factors and research issues.

The current guidance of American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) simplifies the complex considerations for the purpose of offering some practical guidance in an uncharted area. In the UK, some professionals have urged the government to develop national guidelines on screen-based technology , while others have argued that there is insufficient evidence to develop any guidance in this area. Simplified answers can be easily met with criticism and resistance, and the AAP guidance has been the subject of much controversy and debate. Whether you think that iPads should be used from birth or strictly after children turn two, it is important to be aware of the sticking points of the debate.

Calculating the incalculable

The positive aspect of the revised AAP guidance is that, unlike its previous publications, the 2016 academic summary is accompanied by an interactive tool that parents and professionals can use to 'calculate media time' and 'create a family media plan'.

The key criticism of media plans and calculators is that they reduce the use of technology to a quantifiable commodity, as something that can be assessed and evaluated. In real life, children use technology in transition spaces, such as waiting rooms or car journeys, in fragments of three minutes here, five minutes there. Our lives are becoming more and more intertwined with technology in various forms, including the internet of things (and in children's case also the internet of toys). This means that increasingly, it will be hard for parents of young children to count their screen time like beans in a jar.

Dichotomising the multiple

The AAP guidance has been historically criticised for dichotomising (or favouring research that dichotomises) media- and human-mediated engagement. Their new Media Use Plan continues this rhetoric as shown in this example:

By decreasing screen time, we will have more time for:

Playing outside

Looking at books, going to the library

Playing dress-up or make believe

Playing with friends

Being with my family

Playing with blocks, Legos & puzzles

(from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/media/Pages/default.aspx#planview)

Critics say we should not distinguish between human versus technology, but consider the value of individual activities, contexts of use and devices. For example, using technology-connected blocks is different from using Mummy's iPhone and, similarly, watching a family member talk to the child through FaceTime is different from watching a violent cartoon.

However, knowing that context and content of use are interconnected can produce uncertain and inconsistent practices. This is where dichotomising a multi-faceted issue is of practical value. When pushed for a yes/no answer, and in light of the limited evidence available for a new technology, professionals need to proceed on a precautionary principle and maintain that 'until we have research-driven evaluation criteria for the appropriateness of screens for under-twos, it is best to minimise their presence and to maximise that of effective human contact' .

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Photo copyright Natalia Kucirkova, 2017

Ages and stages versus diverse possibilities

Research with infants is limited because babies cannot communicate their perceptions and attitudes in the way pre-schoolers and older children can. The AAP guidance is built around milestones, which reflects the ways in which developmental psychologists study and assess children. It is likely that such age cut-offs will need to be revised as new devices, new studies and new research methods become available. Authors of the 2016 AAP guidance revised the two-year-age cut-off point to 18 months, based on emerging evidence on video-chatting. It is therefore best interpreted as 'here is what we know' with the acknowledgment that there is still a lot we need to figure out, with many research challenges ahead of us.

Acceptance of limited research evidence needs to go hand in hand with the acknowledgment that the issue of infants' use of technology cannot be resolved by studying children alone. For instance, sharing baby photos helps new mothers enact and receive validation of 'good mothering'. The passive role infants play in the creation of their own digital footprint is part of the wider socio-cultural factors that influence the effects of technologies on early childhood. This includes reflection on the intense marketing around new technologies, as well as the parenting experience and the culture of sharing content on social media.

Scientific evidence versus personal experience

Another point of tension relates to the interpretation of scientific evidence on this issue. Some scholars argue that AAP employs citation bias, ignoring scientific evidence that does not fit with their evidence of 'harm'. The current guidance is more balanced in terms of acknowledging published literature on positive and negative effects. However, the fact remains that a body of qualitative research, which employs alternative research methods (such as ethnography, multimodal analysis), and research with smaller but ethnically and culturally diverse groups is rarely represented in policy statements. This limits its ecological validity and adoption on an international and large-population basis.

The tactics of popular media is to get parents' attention through scaremongering examples that often undermine young parents' confidence in their own judgment and skills. Many researchers continue to counterbalance this rhetoric by profiling creative, family-enriching examples of technology use at home.

The new guidance focuses on how parents can use media together with their young children and was accompanied by a concentrated effort of several key stakeholders (including The Office of Educational Technology, who released their Policy Brief on Children's Screen Time on the same day), and a well-planned and coordinated press release. Joining forces is essential for a consistent message to be delivered to parents, who are already bombarded with a plethora of conflicting information on parenting in the digital age. Studies show that parents find it difficult to find a balance in children's digital diet, and there are different views among and within families on this issue. Discussions on children's use of technology therefore need to acknowledge this variety, by looking at how parents model technology use at home with, or in front of, their child.

It is only if we value and validate the combined influence of all four factors - context, content, developmental and research issues - that we can avoid an emotional response to the complex question concerning infants and screens. A critical awareness of this complexity would be the ultimate way for professionals to empower parents to effectively co-use media with their children from the earliest stages of a child's life.