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More than one-third of babies are clicking around on smartphones and tablets—tots as young as six months old—finds a new study. Yet real life and expert guidelines are at odds when it comes to screen time.

April 30, 2015

More than one-third of babies are clicking around on smartphones and tablets—tots as young as six months old—finds a new study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting.

Based on a survey of 370 parents visiting a pediatric clinic in Philadelphia, 36% of children under 1 years old had touched or scrolled a screen, 24% had called someone, 15% used apps, and 12% played video games. By age 2, the majority of kids were using mobile devices.

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Yet real life and expert guidelines are at odds when it comes to screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that entertainment media (including TV) be avoided for infants and children under age 2. As their policy paper states, "Studies have shown that excessive media can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity."

Parents may feel good about letting kids use learning apps that promise to teach numbers and letters, but they're not necessarily beneficial. As psychologist Laura E. Berk, PhD, a specialist in early childhood development, has written for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood; "Based on scientific evidence on how infants learn, I believe that claims that a two-dimensional touch screen app can teach alphabet letters, numbers, and counting from 1 to 10 to babies (including those as young as 6 months) are inaccurate, seriously misleading to parents, and potentially detrimental to infant development."

So there's that. And then there's this thing called real life. Many parents let children use their devices for practical reasons; 73% of parents in the survey said they let their kids play with mobile devices while they were doing household chores, and 65% did so while running errand.

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Of course, it makes good sense that lots of screen time isn't healthy for any child, and may not be an ideal activity for babies. Nor should it substitute for good old playtime. Parents need to avoid overdoing it, too. Another recent study found that cell phones accounted for 30% of parental distraction at playgrounds—a time when kids are more likely to do something dangerous.

Still, when a parent is waiting on a long line at the supermarket or Target, a toddler is getting antsy, and none of the usual stroller toys are helping, handing over a phone for a bit seems like a perfectly reasonable, sane thing to do.

Guidelines from Common Sense Media take a less hardline approach: "Take it from us; A little bit of media isn't gonna hurt. We simply encourage parents to limit time with screen media for kids under 2…." Instead of just handing over the phone, they recommend, explore words, sounds, and images online together, or check out photos and discuss the people in them.

That's fun for both parent of child—and a relief for everyone waiting on line around them.

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