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July 11, 2017

Smartphones and babies: Why you should keep your little one away from your phone

When Killian was still very young, he started reaching for my iPhone. I asked my husband one day, “Why is he obsessed with our phones?” He replied, “Because we are.” That was the moment when I knew we needed to unplug and keep our phones away from our son.

I cringe when I see adults hand smartphones over to their babies. I can appreciate that it is an easy way to get your child to quiet down at a restaurant or obtain 15 minutes to do the laundry. Smartphones can act as a virtual baby sitter, lulling your little one into sedation through YouTube videos and entertaining apps. But I think our littlest ones are being harmed by the excessive screen time that dominates American life. This may sound old-fashioned in our technological age, but my philosophy on smartphones and babies is supported by the nation’s leading pediatric medical association.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents discourage the use of electronic media to all children under 2 years old, saying, “Young children learn best from—and need—interaction with humans, not screens.” The organization believes that there are significantly more potential negative effects than positive ones for young children exposed to smartphones. The AAP says, “The rapid adoption of mobile devices by children is likely to have an impact on family dynamics and child health, development, and literacy.”

Unfortunately, the majority of little ones in America are utilizing smartphones. Most children start using mobile devices before their first birthday, and 75 percent have their own by age 4, according to a study published by the AAP in 2015. Of the 350 families in the Philadelphia area with kids ages 6 months to 4 years old who were surveyed for that report, almost all children were playing on cellphones. Parents cited chores, distraction and bedtime as the most common reasons for handing these devices over to their little ones. A report released by the Boston University School of Medicine in 2015 said, “Use of these devices to distract children during mundane tasks may be detrimental to the social-emotional development of the child.” I can relate to needing to get the dishes done or having to entertain my son so he does not squirm off the changing table. I do not understand why people are defaulting to using a tiny computer as a substitute for hands-on parenting.

Maybe it is because a new industry of apps for babies that touts educational and entertainment benefits now exists for this burgeoning young generation of smartphone users. But be cautious about these programs. The AAP says that many “educational” video programs do not teach babies because children under 2 years old lack the ability to understand the content and context. As one of my mama mentors and role models, author of "What To Expect When You’re Expecting" Heidi Murkoff says, “Your smartphone won’t make your sweetie smarter.” If I play an educational video on my phone for my 9-month-old son, he may be entertained by the songs and colors, but he will not understand the lesson.

Need a couple more reasons why babies should not play with smartphones? First, they are covered in germs. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found fecal matter (!!!) on one out of every six smartphones. Becoming a parent may desensitize you to having poop on your hands, but that does not mean you want your little one playing in it. Also, using a smartphone can cause anxiety and can exacerbate addictions – not something you want to instill in your son or daughter.

I am not a Luddite. I have an Apple watch to help keep me connected to phone calls and text messages. I use my iPhone for two things that I believe benefit my son: playing music to soothe him to sleep when we are traveling and FaceTime with family and friends. There was even a time when my husband would turn to a video on YouTube that helped to soothe Killian when his newborn cries escalated. We stopped distracting him with this video many months ago when we decided to keep our phones away from him and, as often as possible, out of our own hands when with him. As Common Sense Media says, “Young kids learn best through nurturing relationships with caregivers and loved ones, so make sure your phone use doesn't interfere.”

I probably sound equal parts judgmental toward others and unrealistic about parenting in the 21st century. My child is not going to be the only kid in kindergarten who has never been exposed to technology. It will be a part of his life at some point in the future – but not yet. I also do not want to condemn those whose situations may not allow them to unplug during their child’s waking hours. There was a time when my phone was glued to my hand and my eyes when I was a businesswoman running a public relations consultancy. Now, as a stay-at-home mom, I am able to put my son’s life and schedule ahead of my inbox. My husband’s situation is different: He must stay on top of his emails and answer his phone when it rings. His livelihood and ability to provide for his family are dependent upon it. So I understand why working parents are not able to unplug as much as I recommend. All of us must balance our reality with aspirations. But if we are at least trying to minimize our own screen time and limit (if not eliminate) it from our young children’s lives, then we are moving in the right direction.

If you need advice and guidance on managing your children’s media use, speak with your pediatrician or visit Common Sense Media. There are many resources available to help you and your family have a healthy relationship with technology.

Do you let your children play with your smartphone? Is it unrealistic to keep my son away from my cellphone until he is older? Share your thoughts with me and other parents in the comments section below or tweet me @ThePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.

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