Cyber Babies

“Cyber Babies” is chapter 3 in Dr.  Aiken’s new book “The Cyber Effect.”   She begins by relating a story of when she was traveling on a train watching a mother feeding her baby.   She held the baby’s bottle in one hand  and a mobile phone in the other.  Her head was bent looking at the screen.  The mother looked exclusively at her phone while the baby fed.  The baby gazed upward as babies do looking adoringly at the mother’s jaw, as the mother gazed adoringly at her phone.   The feeding lasted about 30 minutes and the mother did not make eye contact with the infant or once pull her attention from the screen of her phone.  Dr. Aiken was appalled as eye contact between baby and mother is quite important for the development of the child.  She mentioned that parents frequently ask her  at what age is it appropriate for a baby to be introduced to electronic screens.  She agrees that this is an important question but asks the parents first to think about this question:  What is the right age to introduce your baby to your mobile phone use?

She elaborates on the importance of face time with a baby.  They need the mother’s eye contact.   They need to be talked to, tickled, massaged, and played with.  She writes that there is no study of early childhood development that doesn’t support this.

She continues, “By experiencing your facial expressions—your calm acceptance of them, your love and attention, even you occasional groggy irritation—they thrive and develop.  This is how emotional attachment style is learned.  A baby’s attachment still is created by the baby’s earliest experiences with parents and caregivers.”  She further notes “A mother and her child need to be paying attention to each other.  They need to engage and connect.  It cannot be simply one-way.  It isn’t just about your baby bonding with you.   Eye contact is also about bonding with your baby.”

In a 2014 study in the journal “Pediatrics” fifty-five caregivers with children were observed in fast food restaurants, forty caregivers used mobile devices during the meal and sixteen used their devices continuously with their attention directed primarily at the device and not the children.  Dr. Aiken wishes that the following warning be placed on mobile phones:  “Warning:  Not Looking at your Baby Could Cause Significant Delays.”

She devotes considerable space to products that promise early childhood development, products such as the Baby Einstein Products.  Very little, if any, research has gone into the development of these products, and evaluations of these products provide no evidence that they are effective.

The research is clear that the best way to help a baby learn to talk or develop any other cognitive skill is through live interaction with another human being.  Videos and television shows have been shown to be ineffective in learning prior to the age of two.  A study of one thousand infants found that babies who watched more than two hours of DVDs per day performed worse on language assessments than babies who did not watch DVDs.  For each hour of watching a DVD, babies knew six to eight words fewer than babies who did not watch DVDs.  She does note that quieter shows with only one story line, such as “Blue’s Clues” and Teletubbies” can be more effective.   Still babies learn best from humans and not machines.

Some early-learning experts believe there is a connection between ADHD and screen use in children.  ADHD is now the most prevalent psychiatric illness of children and teenagers in America.  The number of young people being treated with medication of ADHD grows every year.  More than ten thousand toddlers, ages two and three years old, are among the children taking ADHD drugs, even though prescribing these falls outside any established pediatric guidelines.

Dr Aiken offers the following ideas for parents pending more guidance and information on proper regulation:

Don’t use a digital babysitter or, in the future, a robot nanny.  Babies and toddlers need a real caregiver, not a screen companion, to cuddle and talk with.  There is no substitute for a real human being.

Because your baby’s little brain is growing quickly and developed through sensory stimulation, consider the senses—touch, smell, sight, sound.  A baby’s early interactions and experiences are encoded in the brain and will ave lasting effects.

Wait until your baby is two or three years old before they get screen time.  And make a conscious decision about the screen rules for them taking into account that screens could be impacting how your child is being raised.

Monitor you own screen time.  Whether or not your children are watching, be aware of how much your television is on at home—and if the computer screen is always glowing and beckoning.  Be aware of how often you check you mobile phone in front of your baby or toddler.

Understand that babies are naturally empathetic and can be very sensitive to emotionally painful, troubling, or violent content.  Studies show that children have a different perception of reality and fantasy than adults do.  Repetitive viewings of frightening or violent content will increase retention, meaning they will form lasting unpleasant memories.

Don’t be fooled by marketing claims.  Science shows us that tablet apps may not be as educational as claimed and that screen time can, in fact, cause developmental delays and may even cause attention issues and language delays in babies who view more than two hours of media per cay.

Put pressure on toy developers to support their claims with better scientific evidence and new studies that investigate cyber effects.

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