Portable Device Fears Show
Power of Social Development
How do small screens impact young minds?
Society | DOI: 10.1145/3131271 Chris Edwards
“What we are finding in our lab is
that these devices command attention much better than other things.
It can make it more difficult for parents to interact with their children,”
Christakis adds. “I tend to think of
the effects being mediated through
two different pathways. One is the direct pathway, which is the actual content. Interactive media could lead to
the same kind of overstimulation as
fast-paced TV, although being interactive, it means the child can control
the pacing in a way that isn’t possible
“There is also the indirect pathway,
which works through displacement.
This is about what could they be doing
that they aren’t, whether it’s singing,
reading, or going outside to play. Even
if someone developed the perfect app
that was perfectly paced and shown to
be beneficial, if children used that app
eight hours a day, we would recognize
that behavior as being a problem,”
Christakis is concerned about the
addictiveness of applications on tablets and smartphones, and the potential for them to eat too far into the
child’s daytime activities. “I tell parents to limit time on interactive devices to no more than 30 minutes. People
ask, ‘How do I know?’ I came up with
that limit when we looked at what people have done in the past, using techniques such as time diaries. Children
in the pre-iPad days typically spent
a maximum of 20–30 minutes a day
with a particular toy, but they will often spend much more time than that
with an iPad game; there is something
very different about the experience.
“The makers of many of these
games design them to be addictive.
We live in an attentional economy,
so apps writers are often trying to get
people drawn in and get people addicted,” Christakis adds.
LAST YEAR, THE American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its guidelines on how much access children should have to electronic devices amid growing concerns among
parents of the effects of electronic media. Yet extrapolation of the evidence
linking television and behavior may
obscure potentially more subtle and
diverse effects. Recent developments
in work with interactive devices represent an increased understanding
of how children learn and the importance of social interaction.
Concerns over the mental effects
of electronic devices have been largely
driven by fears that the prevalence of
conditions such as attention-deficit/
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) seem to
follow their adoption. In 2011, the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an increase
of 33% in ADHD prevalence among
children from 1997 to 2008. A 2016
follow-up study by the CDC found the
increase continued to 2012, but then
began to fall through 2015 among
children of poorer families, although
that reduction was not reflected in
From 1999 onward, a number of
studies looked at heavy television use
by young children and identified possible effects on their development.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of
the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, says: “We found that
the more television children watched
at age three, the more likely they were
to have attention problems.” The fast-changing images and sounds in many
television programs that are made to
capture the attention of young children
“condition the mind to a reality that
doesn’t exist,” he notes.
The question is whether such a link
extends to portable devices, says Dr.
Danielle Erkoboni-Wilbur, a pedia-
trician at St. Christopher’s Hospital
for Children in Philadelphia. “When
those studies on behavior were done,
technology just meant television.
There is nothing that’s formally in the
literature linking those outcomes to
portable digital media.”
A 2015 study by pediatrician Dr. Hil-
da Kabali and colleagues at the Einstein
Medical Center in Philadelphia found
much of the average child’s time with
portable devices is spent watching on-
line TV, rather than using interactive ap-
plications. However, as less passive ex-
periences become more common over
time, they may have different effects on
Says Christakis, “I think the touchscreen interactive experience that began
with the iPad is, for the lack of a better
word, a transformative technology. It’s
the interactivity that makes it different.
With traditional media, a child never
thinks or says ‘I did it’: it’s a completely
passive experience. But it’s so gratifying
to make something happen by touching
an object on the screen.”