By the time they reach 12 to13 years of age, Australian children start spending up to 30% of their waking hours in front of a screen, according to the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.
However there are still many unknowns about the impact of smartphone use on child development. For one its effects on the brain and overall health outcomes are not yet fully understood. But experts agree that it can have both detrimental effects and benefits, depending on how well parents monitor and guide their children’s smartphone usage.
There are concerns around excessive smartphone use and how it contributes to problems with attention though evidence is either mixed or contradictory.
- Smartphone use and multitasking (or using multiple digital devices at once) are associated with poorer short-term attentional control though their long-term effects are unclear (Wilmer, Sherman & Chein, 2017).
- Heavy smartphone use has is associated with a preference for smaller but more immediate rewards (Hadar, Eliraz, Lazarovits, Alyagon & Zangen, 2015).
Experts agree that the best way to teach young children higher-order cognitive skills like attentional control is through unstructured play, social play, and parent-child interactions.
Self-regulation and direct human interaction
Parents and care providers sometimes rely on devices to entertain, pacify, or distract young children. Questions remain as to how screen time and smartphone use affect child psychology and development, including social and problem-solving skills that are typically acquired during unstructured play and interaction with other children.
Experts suggest that hands-on activities and direct human interaction are more preferable to screen-based games. Although the use of mobile devices has its place in keeping children entertained, it can become problematic when it starts replacing hands-on activities and face-to-face interactions.
Using a smartphone or tablet right before bedtime can potentially interfere with sleep. The kind of blue light emitted by most digital screens is known to affect the sleep cycle in humans. This is because cells containing light-sensitive protein at the back of the eyes that perceive wavelengths of blue light and signals to the part of the brain responsible for regulating the body’s circadian rhythms.
This is because blue light typically peaks in the daytime and signals the body to wake up while red light peaks at nighttime and serves as an indication for the body to prepare for sleep.
The benefits of appropriate smartphone use in children
Smartphone use can have its benefits. Appropriate smartphone use among children comes with the following advantages:
- Connectivity – Smartphones allow for easy connectivity between children and other family members, making it easier for them to contact their parents and loved ones any time. Chatting or going on video calls with friends and family can help them maintain relationships over a long distance.
- Education – Reading or watching educational content on mobile devices can give older children access to a variety of knowledge. These devices also help children access information through online sources like encyclopedias, dictionaries, online learning modules, and more.
- Visual skills – Certain smartphone or tablet-based activities can help improve children’s visual skills, including visual acuity, peripheral vision, and the ability to track visual information.
- Problem-solving and decision-making – Playing mobile games can help children develop their decision-making and problem-solving skills.
- Reward and motivation – Parents and guardians can use smartphones as a a reward and motivational tool to reinforce positive behaviours.
- Entertainment – Smartphone use can be a good source of entertainment for children, allowing them to have some downtime. It can also be a momentary diversion for children, giving parents time to attend to other things around the house while keeping their kids occupied.
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