Have you ever thought that a child staring at an iPad or other mobile device is acting as if they’ve been drugged? There might be some support for that idea, according to a recent study from the World Congress of Anaesthesiologists.
The researchers assigned some children to receive a sedative (midazolam) prior to surgery, while other children were instead allowed to play iPad games for 20 minutes. Both groups of children were then given anesthesia.
The researchers found that playing games on an iPad reduced anxiety as effectively as the sedative drug.
Of course, there’s no evidence that iPads cause the same physiological changes as sedatives, and playing with a mobile device may be preferable to receiving a potentially dangerous pharmaceutical. But a growing body of evidence does suggest that excessive use of iPads and other mobile devices can cause serious psychological, emotional and even physical problems for children’s health.
iPads hamper emotional development
Researchers are drawing attention to the risks of an increasingly common parental behavior: handing an iPad to a child to help them calm down, such as in the midst of a tantrum. According to child psychologists, this can prevent children from learning how to regulate their own feelings, and make them dependent upon external sources of pleasure when they feel upset.
“It has been well-studied that increased television time decreases a child’s development of language and social skills,” said developmental-behavioral pediatrics researcher Jenny Radesky of Boston University.
“Mobile media use similarly replaces the amount of time spent engaging in direct human-human interaction. If these devices become the predominant method to calm and distract young children, will they be able to develop their own internal mechanisms of self-regulation?”
In a February 2015 commentary in Pediatrics, Radesky and colleagues noted that research does not support any educational benefit associated with the use of digital media, including tablets or eBooks, for children under preschool age. For older children, such media might provide an educational benefit if used in tandem with an adult. In other contexts, these media are more likely to be harmful. Particularly dangerous is the use of digital media and mobile devices to distract children from negative emotions, including boredom.
“Heavy device use during young childhood could interfere with development of empathy, social and problem solving skills that are typically obtained by exploring, unstructured play and interacting with friends,” Radesky said.
Studies also suggest that heavy iPad use can hamper motor development and hand-eye coordination. This is causing children to arrive at school unable to perform simple tasks such as stacking blocks, and may affect their later ability to learn to write.
Hampered psychosocial development due to overuse of screens may also be contributing to rising rates of ADHD, warns Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood. Receiving an ADHD diagnosis, in turn, may lead to children being dosed with real pharmaceutical drugs, and is linked with worse health and emotional outcomes.
Limit your kids’ screen time now
So what’s a concerned parent to do? Fortunately, research supports the effectiveness of simply setting limits on your children’s screen time, and sticking to them. Experts also recommend banning screens from the bedroom, even if that means turning off your WiFi at night so children can’t secretly go online with mobile devices after going to bed.
You can also look for educational environments for your children that are light on or free of screens, such as Waldorf Schools. Surprisingly, a Waldorf school in Los Altos, Calif., is popular with parents who work at tech companies making the very devices these parents want their children to avoid.
Steve Jobs himself said he did not allow his children to use iPads.