Meet Your New Babysitter: The iPad

How technology is not only taking over a child’s time, but changing their overall development.


As a college journalism student, multimedia writer and reporter, and pre-school teacher, I have the awesome opportunity to not only keep up on technology, but to see the affect it has on my students as I watch them grow each day. And I’m not just talking about height. I get to see them develop in the way they speak, think, create, and interact; and also witness the differences in such development. I see the good — the growing diversity and acceptance between the children. But I also witness the downside of social interaction.

One such example became clear when observing one of my former students. He was not a bad child but I remember him being really difficult: unable to sit still, unable to listen, and unable to fully express emotions that didn’t involve some sort of tantrum. I couldn’t understand why until I found out he couldn’t write his name and that he couldn’t even hold a pencil properly. Children do not all develop fine motor skills at the same pace; but his lack of ability to hold a pencil between his fingers came as a shock to me. But when I saw his parents hand him an iPad, he was a master. He sat quietly and flawlessly used his index finger to move around objects in a game on the tablet.

Technology is ingrained in every part of our lives. Our smartphones and tablets have practically become a permanent extension of our hands. Over two-thirds of Americans today own a smartphone, which is a 35 percent jump from 2011 and this number will continue to rise over the next few years.

As our smartphones are getting bigger over time, we now see those same devices being used by smaller hands.

Imagine a young couple sitting in a restaurant with a child who is probably no more than two years old. The child starts to fuss and begins to squirm in his seat due to boredom and impatience. Then it begins: the child starts to cry. But his tears are soon subdued by the glow of the LCD screen of a smartphone as a YouTube video plays Elmo singing the ABCs. The decision by the parents was made without a second thought because of the educational context of the video in an attempt to regain some silence while they eat. They were successful in their efforts and they continued on with their dinner.

This has become the norm. Technology is the new babysitter and the go-to for parents for everything from entertainment to educational lessons. Parents can now access a virtual universe of instant pacification. They can find anything and everything to keep their child occupied.

While smartphones and tablets are the inevitable way of the future, is this exposure to technology actually doing a disservice to children rather then helping them? Professional educators and researchers are exposing a darker side of exposure to such technology at a young age.

Children under two spend on average almost an hour in front of a smartphone or tablet each day. The number more than doubles to two and a half hours for children between the ages of two and four; while four to five year olds spend about three hours a day with such technology.

Cognitive Effects

Theorists like Jean Piaget believed that children learn through experiences, which leads them to develop their own knowledge over time. Since Piaget believed that children’s cognitive processes differ from adults, play provides a crucial experience in the development process of a child, opening the path to the construction of their physical, mental, creative, and social-emotional abilities.

I have found that children have a give-and-take relationship with their environment. The things they see and explore trigger them to want to learn about those things. Children want to ask questions, children want explanations, and children want those things to be demonstrated. This is how children learn.

Darlene Landeros, a professor and co-chair of the Child Development Department at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., said that technology cannot replicate the experience children can receive from a hands-on approach, such as play.

“I think the main concern is that children are spending more and more time engaged with technology versus playing, which should be their natural mode of learning, interacting with others, [and] developing social information,” Landeros said. “So by spending 20 or more hours a week with an object, so they are not gaining the daily skills that they need to function later in life,” she says.

One such crucial factor of development in young children that’s being affected by the rising use of technology is the social interactions experienced by the child. During the first years of life, the child learns about their environment and social cues by the social interactions of their parents and caretakers. Landeros says that the time children are spending in front of a screen, no matter how educational the content may be, is actually taking away time from of the educational source the child needs the most: the actual people taking care of them. Children are dependent on social interactions and that a “child-to-object” interaction doesn’t allow exposure to social activity or social information.

“Babies are looking at our face and they conduct social referencing,” Landeros says, “They are trying to figure out what’s safe and what is acceptable. They are learning simple language to know how to respond to that. Through interactions, they are having their world labeled for them. ‘Look at the doggy.’ ‘ See the horsey?’”

The use of technology is impacting the cognitive development in many different ways. Since the brain is still in the development stages, consistent exposure to things like smartphones and tablets are “wiring the brain” in ways different than seen in prior generations. With instant access to information, children are becoming less focused and researchers are seeing a decrease of an initiative to invest time into something over time due to opportunity of immediate access to information like Google. This in turn affects other cognitive areas and skills they utilize every day of their lives: attention, thinking, language development, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, and memory.

It’s easier for adults to sit and learn something but for a child, it’s completely different. According to the book “A Child Goes Forth” by Barbara J. Taylor, children are “doers.” They need time and attention to learn about their environment in order to get a full grasp of what is actually happening around them. With technology quickly taking away that time, children are spending less in play and more time moving fingers around on a screen.


Children can manipulate a tech device faster than most of us can turn on a phone. Their fingers move lighting fast as they quickly open up their favorite apps in a blink of an eye. My student instantly transformed into a tech wiz once that iPad screen turned on and while it was impressive, one starts to wonder if it was too much too soon. The fact he couldn’t do something as simple as holding a pencil overshadowed any fancy tricks he can do on a tablet.

While the use of technology can promote skills such as coordination, doctors and educators are seeing a delay in the development of fine motor skills, the operation of hand and finger muscles, and how this will affect them over time.

“In school, we have to teach them the basics like literacy, reading, writing, and if they don’t develop the hand muscles and the wrist rotation, the skills necessary to write, then we are doing them a big disservice,” said Landeros.

Tech overuse has also been highlighted as an underlying cause of rising cases of carpal tunnel syndrome in children and teens. The disorder, “which is characterized by nerve pressure that causes numbness, tingling, weakness, or muscle damage in the hand and fingers,” can be linked to constant use of technology like tablets, phones, and computers.

Along with rising pain complaints, experts are pointing the finger to tech overuse to explain the rising numbers of cognitive and physical disorders. Cris Rowan of the Huffington Post said that not only is child obesity and diabetes continuing to rise, but doctors have been increasingly diagnosing children with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, issues with learning, sleep disorders, among others.

Social-Emotional and Communication

Children learn about themselves through social interaction and how they communicate with the people around them. But experts are seeing that technology, while a great tool in contacting family members who live long distances away, is making an impact on the social-emotional and language development.

When it comes to play, I try to make sure that my students play for as long as I can. I do this because no matter how many academic papers I can give them or how many times I have them repeat their alphabet, I know that social interaction sets the foundation as to how a child will behave, how they will treat their peers, and how they will value their self-worth. We all remember the friends who shaped our childhood, how they made us feel, and how they helped us become who we are. If these moments are taken away, so will our ability to form organic and genuine relationships. The more we can get kids talking to each other, the better.

Jamie Ankeny, a speech language pathologist from Orange County, Calif., said that play helps develop the way a child communicates and that experience can’t be replaced with a handheld device. She explains:

“The reason why I emphasize play, especially in my job because I work with children who need help with social skills, is because play is so important as an early social skills tool. I try to focus a lot on play because you’re using the language of play, you’re inviting others to play, you’re role playing, and you are doing things like ‘you’ll be the good guy, I’ll be the bad guy.’”

Ankeny said that it’s not uncommon for her to come across tech-dependent parents with children who are having trouble with language development who don’t realize that technology is not a replacement for old fashioned communication.

“I have parents tell me all the time ‘I don’t get it. They do stuff on the iPad, so how come they are not talking?’” Ankeny said. “And they will ask me a lot about what apps they can get to get them to talk. There’s no substitute for human interaction. I have to tell them a lot because parents want that quick fix. They want the iPad to teach them. You know, there are better choices for apps or things like that, but that’s what I say in general. You just need to get them talking by doing that with them.”

According to Landeros, as the child grows older, the lack of social interactions will affect them in many ways. Their initiative in learning is based on how that social reinforcement they receive, starting from a really young age.

“Young children need time and attention,” Landeros said. “They need validation. They need adults to show a genuine interest in them because all of that develops their self-esteem. So how are we going to keep children motivated and interested in learning if they don’t have that social reinforcement? And an object just can’t do that.”

Landeros also said that exposure to technology eventually leads to exposure to social media. Social media is so ingrained in our society, that children now know what Facebook and Twitter is. Landeros said children can get a superficial outlook to how social relationships are really formed and think it’s just through a click of a button, the opposite of organically forming them in real life like generations before.

“What I have seen is that the child has been exposed to technology, it’s become a part of their life, and now they’re 12 and I see a child go ‘Oh, look Darlene! I have 47 friends,”’ Landeros said. “Well, are they real friends? You’ve never seen them!”

Landeros and Ankeny said that parents need to be aware of the time spent on technology and the content they are exposed. They agreed that technology should used only as a tool but that parents should be there every step of the way to explain what’s going on and parallel it with real life examples.

Jamie Ankeny’s husband, Tim Ankeny, a physical therapist assistant and father to their one-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, said that technology should be a privilege, not a right, and should not be used to reward bad behavior.

“We want our kids to be social,” Ankeny said. “With our reward system, [our son] doesn’t really ask for the iPad anymore.”

Jamie Ankeny said that their reward system helps limit their son’s time in front of a screen.

“We have a whole reward system in place. Like for good behavior, he earns tokens. And if gets like ten of them, he can turn it in for something, Sometimes he’ll turn it in for a special treat, or sometimes he’ll turn it in for iPad time. It used to be everyday but now it’s only a couple of times a week. Like maybe only twice a week.”

One of the most important things about being the educator is providing students with the materials and time to allow them to build up their own knowledge. Technology can only give so much but at the end of the day, it’s still an object that gives you limited information. Experts, like Landeros, emphasize the need for children to be creative and allow them to think outside the box.

Landeros said that children need real life experience to truly develop their cognitive, physical, social-emotional, and communication skills. Landeros said that parents need to regain control and realize their responsibility to be aware of what their child is using and seeing. She also said it’s the off-screen time that truly makes the biggest impact to all developmental areas of the young child and nothing can’t ever replace the real-life experience, no matter how advanced technology gets.

“You’re pushing a button, you’re pressing down, you’re swiping, but you’re not really manipulating the real items.” Landeros said.

“We give them technology. We want them to be quiet. If they are idle and not moving, it’s not conducive to their physical development. It’s not supporting their cognitive development. It’s definitely hindering their social-emotional development. Just being aware of that is important for parents. At least start with awareness, then they can make some choices.”

Photo illustration by Cynthia Schroeder

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.