Developing Young Minds in the Smartphone Era

Source: Shutterstock: Bluedog Studio

There has been an unprecedented uptake of mobile screens by kids across the world. Yet, there is so much unknown about their use of these screens.

“Are mobile screens really good or bad for my kids?” is a question I’m often asked when people learn about my research area. In this digital era, mobile screens (i.e., smartphones and tablets) have inescapably become an integral part of our lives, however labelling them as either inherently good or bad is not a particularly helpful way to think about them, and can often leave us feeling confused or even apathetic about screens. So to avoid a pointless two-sided argument, what things should we actually take into consideration?

We consider adults to have problematic screen use when they compulsively use their smartphone to the extent that it impacts their normal daily functioning. It could be that their screen use interferes with their productivity, social relationships, physical health or their emotional wellbeing. But we don’t know, yet, what problematic use looks like in early childhood, but it’s almost certainly a whole new challenge for young children compared to adults. Unlike adults who have already developed their social and emotional skills and are expected to be equipped to face this smartphone era, young children grow up with these screens! Because of this, whether their abilities to navigate social environments in the future would be affected is still unknown.

In our recent review of all the current research on kids and screen use, we found that the potential harms of early childhood mobile screen use are likely to outweigh its benefits. According to our review, young children who use mobile screens more frequently and for longer periods were more likely to have problems with their sleep, and managing their emotions and behaviour. However, what still largely remains unclear is whether screen use leads to developmental problems, or the other way around. We also don’t know very much about how, why, when and where young children use mobile screens. It’s quite possible that these aspects might be just as important, or even more important, than the duration (i.e., how long) of screen use.

What is clear is that we need to work with parents to try to understand how toddlers and pre-schoolers use screens. Our latest study does just that, and aims to answer some of the big questions about kids and screens.

Here’s what you can do in the meantime:

  • Prioritise face-to-face interactions and non-screen based activities (e.g., drawing, creative play with toys, building blocks).
  • Be aware of the content kids can access. Is it educational, age-appropriate and easy to switch off?
  • Encourage shared screen time as a way to engage with the child and help them to relate digital content to the real world.
  • Talk to kids about what they see on screens. Set early expectations that screen time is only one part of play.

 Sumudu Mallawaarachchi is a PhD candidate at Deakin University's School of Psychology.