All About Babies

All Children Are Exposed to Screens These Days: Study

A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the majority of children have their own mobile device by the age of 4.

baby playing with smartphone Shutterstock
Think you're the only parent working overtime to monitor your baby's screen time? Think again. A new study published online today in Pediatrics found that children in low-income, minority urban communities had "almost universal exposure" to gadgets like smartphones and tablets.

This finding is a 180 from previous research that found a correlation between wealth and ownership of digital devices.

The study involved 350 children who went to sick or well visits at one specific medical center in a low-income community in Philadelphia. Researchers surveyed the parents during those visits. Considering the ubiquity of devices—and the lower costs of owning them—their findings are pretty much what you'd think: A whopping 97 percent of kids lived in a home with a TV; a vast majority (83 percent) had access to tablets and cell phones (77 percent); and well over half had a computer (58 percent), a video console (56 percent), and access to the Internet (59 percent).

What's more, nearly all (97 percent) of the children had played with a mobile device, and nearly 75 percent had their own gadget by the time they turned 4. This stat gave researchers pause, in part because the jury is still out on how cell phones and tablets impact a child's social and cognitive development.

Interestingly, 44 percent of babies younger than 1 played games, apps, or watched videos on a mobile device. That number jumps up to 77 percent by the time those children turn 2. The reasons parents gave for handing over a phone or tablet will sound familiar: so they can do chores (70 percent) and run errands (58 percent), and so the child will stay quiet in public (65 percent). More than a quarter (28 percent) also fessed up to using a mobile device to help put their kiddo to sleep.

These stats help paint a more realistic picture of electronics' role in our kids' lives, where we can't fill up our cars or shop at a grocery store or take a cab without running into some sort of screen. Personally, adhering to the American Academy of Pediatrics' longstanding no-screen-time rule for kids younger than 2 was nearly impossible for me to follow. My guess is that I'm hardly alone here.

In fact, in response to the sprawling electronic landscape, the AAP last month softened its stance on screen time. While some recommendations—like setting limits and modeling good behavior—stayed the same, the academy also realized that these days, "'screen time' is simply becoming 'time.'"

To that end, we parents are encouraged to play video games with our kids and always look at the screen with our babies and toddlers. The quality of what our children play also matters; the AAP suggests prioritizing how they spend their electronics time and also making sure interactive apps are age-appropriate and offer some educational value.

But just as important, the AAP points out, is giving our kids plenty of unstructured time to simply play—unplugged, of course.

Don't forget to sign up to receive our free Parents Daily Baby newsletter.

Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on TwitterPinterest, and Google+.

Digital Devices and Children