Search on YouTube for the word “lullabye” and you’ll get about 236,000 results. A new study suggests why: About one in four parents is using a mobile device to put their young children — sometimes their very young children — to sleep.
The study, appearing Monday in the journal Pediatrics, finds “almost universal exposure,” early adoption, and use of mobile devices among young children. If upheld by further research, the findings could upend our understanding not only of how very young children now consume media, but of whether the long-studied “digital divide” between low-income and middle-class families even exists anymore.
The findings are a bit higher than recent results from Common Sense Media, which found that in families with children ages 8 and younger, ownership of tablet devices such as iPads was 40% in 2013. It found that 75% of children had access to some type of “smart” mobile device at home.
The study in Pediatrics involved a 20-question survey of 289 parents of 350 children in an urban, low-income, minority community. As with past research, the study finds that TV ownership is nearly unanimous at 97%. But it also finds that smartphone ownership in these households is high: 77% of parents surveyed said they had a smartphone.
What’s more surprising: Nearly 97% of parents said their children used mobile devices of some sort. Most started before their first birthday.
At age 4, the survey found, three-fourths of the children owned their own mobile device, and about half multitasked, using more than one device simultaneously.
Among other findings, according to their parents:
• 20% of 1-year-olds own a tablet computer.
• 28% of 2-year-olds can navigate a mobile device with no help.
• 21% of 4-year-olds own a gaming console.
• 28% of parents said they use a mobile device to put their children to sleep.
“That was amazing,” and probably worth another study of its own, said Matilde Irigoyen, chair of the Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Irigoyen, one of the lead researchers on the study, recalled one mother saying she let the battery on her mobile phone run down to about 20%, then handed it to her child.
The mother told Irigoyen, “When they tell me, ‘Oh, no more,’ I say, ‘OK, time to sleep.'”
The study grew out of physicians’ observations of families in a clinic waiting room, Irigoyen said.
“In the clinic, in the practice, we’re seeing every mother, every father, every adult come in, and they pull out their cellphones,” she said. Parents of even very young children use mobile devices to entertain their children, Irigoyen and her colleagues found. But when she went searching for scientific literature about the phenomenon, she found next to nothing. So she suggested to her residents that they explore it.
One of more amazing findings, she said, was how quickly even children as young as 3 reach independent use of such devices. “It’s surprising to see that 3-year-olds don’t need help.”
She was also “very surprised” to see such high numbers of kids owning their own mobile device. “That we didn’t expect.”
But in spite of her surprise, Irigoyen said the findings reflect “what we see” in the waiting room. “We see every parent pulling out the iPhone and giving it to their baby. We see it, so it was sort of validation (in) real life.”
The findings on high levels of mobile device ownership among low-income families also suggest that the so-called “digital divide” around access to the Internet may be fading, said Michael Levine, founding director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the non-profit research arm of Sesame Workshop in New York City.
“I think the typical digital divide, in terms of access, is melting,” he said. But bigger gaps in “intention and participation” are still worrisome, he said.
Levine worries that parents aren’t getting enough guidance in what’s appropriate and educational — certainly not from sites like YouTube or Apple’s iTunes Store, which he said offers about a million apps for children under age 8 — about 100,000 labeled “educational.”
“Believe me, it’s a little bit of a wide definition of ‘educational,'” said Levine, who is also co-author of the recent book Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens.
Parents need better information “so that they can be mentors and guides” for their children’s media use, he said. “For a lot of parents, this is a digital Wild West.”
While many might be shocked that parents are letting children so young spend time with mobile devices, Levine said the real wake-up call may be this: digital media is here to stay.
“Parents don’t need a guilt trip — parents need guidance and support and better-quality stuff that is more intentionally educational, more culturally resonant and relevant, and which they can discover easily with their children.”
Thinking on children and screens has been evolving over the past few years. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) modified its recommendations for parents, saying that while face-to-face interactions with adults are preferred, devices such as smartphones and tablets could be educational, even for toddlers, if a caregiver reads or plays along to guide the learning. “Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers,” AAP said. “The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold.”
Levine said the default should always be face-to-face contact with a person.
“Infants and toddlers desperately need social interaction and meaningful conversation,” he said.
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