Every baby may not be born with a cell phone in hand, but kids are plugging into technology at a younger and younger age — it’s not just your imagination.
In a study published in Pediatrics last month, The American Academy of Pediatrics dropped a hard truth that no parent who has been swimming in the river of digital denial wants to hear: Most kids will have their own personal mobile device by the time they are 4 years old.
Depending on where you’re at in the parenting game, these results may be entirely unsurprising to you, especially if you happen to be the parent of a toddler. When researchers analyzed 350 kids from the ages of 6 months to 4 years old living in a low-income, urban, minority community in Philadelphia, they found that almost every household had a television, tablet, or smartphone. Three-quarters of the 4-year-olds had their own mobile device, and half had their own TV.
And here’s the big bomb that has parents reeling: The vast majority of the children, or 96.6 percent, started using a mobile device before the age of 1.
As a parent of a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old (yes, I was busy there for a minute), I would find this study hilarious if it wasn’t so true. As a first-time mom, I had the fear of screens put into me by a well-meaning pediatrician. When I took my first son in for his 6-week checkup, I was told that, under no circumstance, should I expose my impressionable child to screens before the age of 5.
Fast-forward just a few years later, and I have filed that one under many of my “parenting fails.” My sons fall into the majority — they both started using mobile devices well before age 5. My oldest toddler is now the proud owner of my outdated cell phone that he uses for game time on a nightly basis.
Most parents of young children know this screen time struggle all too well. What often starts out as a digital treat to coax a kid onto the potty quickly turns into a full-blown cell phone brawl every night before bed. It doesn’t help that the screen time research and guidelines are mixed at best.
On the one hand, we have studies like this latest Pediatrics survey to remind us that screen time is a major problem among toddlers. A Vouchercloud study from earlier this year estimated that most kids in the U.S. will get their first cell phone at age 6 on average. The American Academy of Pediatrics takes a strict stance, telling parents that young children should not be allowed to watch TV before the age of 2 because it hinders brain development.
Before you slide into the inevitable shame spiral induced by those months your baby spent in front of Sesame Street, there are experts at the ready on the other side of the debate. In his recent Time piece, Christopher J. Ferguson, associate professor and department chair of psychology at Stetson University, said parents need to stop freaking out about screen time. Ferguson (who appears to understand the plight of the new parent) considers total screen time abstinence for babies and toddlers impractical. Of course, there is a right and a wrong kind of screen time, with research that suggests playing video games doesn’t have the same mind-numbing effect as zoning out in front of the TV.
Like every other diehard parenting debate (think breastfeeding and circumcision), the screen-time decision is one we have to make for ourselves. Instead of feeling guilty when the latest digital overload study is released, take this opportunity to reread the research and make a decision you and your family are comfortable with.
And if you need a little nudge in the right direction, here’s the final word from the AAP: Don’t beat yourself up if your kids are already screen-obsessed but do try to set reasonable limits. At the very least, carve out a portion of the day where everyone in the family can model healthy screen boundaries — family dinner is a great place to start. Creating these tech-free bubbles throughout the day is an easy way to remind kids that technology is just another fun part of life that they get to enjoy, in moderation.