Babies love cellphones, but parents should set boundaries

Babies are attracted to the bright colors, lights and sounds of cellphones. But doctors say too much screen time can pose a risk to babies’ developing brains.

Exposing babies to cellphones for a short period of time won’t necessarily have an impact on a child’s development, but experts say the risk increases when kids are spending longer periods of time in front of screens, whether on smart phones, tablets or TV.

“Young brains are designed to engage with the natural world, the 3-D world, the world around them,” said Dr. Michael Mintz, psychologist at Children’s National Hospital. “When children are more interested in screens than they are engaging with actual toys, they’re not learning about their environment as much, they’re not engaging with the world as it really is.”

Mintz said it’s not uncommon for parents at the hospital’s child development clinic to proudly report how skillful their toddlers are at interacting with digital devices.

“But the ways that their brains are designed to learn are by interacting with the real world and interacting with objects,” Mintz said. “Not just interacting with screens and moving around objects on a screen.”

A common mistake many parents make is using a cellphone to pacify an irritable child. Small children may be fascinated by the buttons and the lights, but the device is exactly the opposite of what a baby needs.

“[The cellphone] essentially overstimulates the brain,” said Mintz. “So when we’re giving them smart phones or putting on the TV as a means to distract them and to get them to sit still, we’re actually showing them that the only way to quiet their body is by overstimulating their mind, and so they just need more and more stimulation to calm down.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics says video chatting is fine, but other types of screen time should be discouraged for kids younger than 18 months.

The Academy also found that infants exposed to screen media in the evening hours slept for a shorter duration than infants with no evening screen exposure.

The experts say it’s also a mistake to believe that digital devices can be great language learning tools for small children.

“The reality is that language is primarily a social form of communication and children can pick up a word here or there from TV or a smart phone, but learning a word here and there is not nearly as important as learning to communicate with eye contact, with gestures, learning to communicate with intonation,” Mintz said.

Dick Uliano

Whether anchoring the news inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center or reporting from the scene in Maryland, Virginia or the District, Dick Uliano is always looking for the stories that really impact people's lives.

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