How many times have we seen a toddler staring wide-eyed at a cell phone in their hands? How early is too early?

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Any parent who tried to limit their child’s screen time before the COVID-19 pandemic quickly saw those time limits explode as children had to spend hours learning in front of their devices.

But even before distance learning and extra idle time, little ones seem to have been just as engrossed in tech as their caregivers.

Is that OK for their development?

Compared to even 5 or 10 years ago, more and more kids are using smartphones, and they’re using them much earlier.

In a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, 60% of children were exposed to smartphones before age 5. In that group, 31% had been introduced to phones before age 2.

Pros

Some experts believe there are opportunities in exposing younger children to smartphones.

According to Concordia University of Nebraska, the intro to technology can benefit children by teaching them how to navigate different operating symptoms and become more technologically literate.

“Technology is an incredible educational tool,” says Dr. Eva Lazar, director of The Lazar Center, in New Jersey. “Young children can learn a lot from programming like Sesame Street, and foster relationships with family members who aren’t necessarily present.”

When many caregivers were growing up, memories were found in family albums, address books, and annual photo calendars.

Many in Gen Z and forward know nothing of these things. The repository and connection of their entire lives thus far reside on the phones we give them and the cloud where all their memories are backed up.

To them, it may feel like their lives start and pause with every battery charge — but it’s important that they develop balance from a young age so there’s life away from the screen.

As with most good things, moderation is key. Excessive screen time for babies or uncontrolled, limitless access for teens may cause developmental side effects.

Another plus for child development and participation in their own mental health is that therapy is now available online in both chat and video form, which can be more comfortable for some older kids and teens. Especially for those in geographic regions or household situations that make it harder for them to get mental healthcare.

It may not surprise you that 95% of families with children under age 8 had at least one smartphone in the house, according to an independent research company, Common Sense. And 42% of children had access to their own personal devices.

Babies and toddlers

There’s still a lot we need to learn about how smartphones can affect a baby’s development — or how filters could warp a tot’s reality and self-perception.

The general belief, though, is that screen time should be limited for very young children.

A warning

At a young age, children aren’t able to process the images they see beyond the colorful pictures and brightness of the screen.

This is also true for baby’s seeing themselves in a smartphone. While it’s an excellent way for a long-distance grandparent to say hello, it’s unlikely that your baby is processing what they see at first, even if it is an image of themselves.

“There are multiple stages of identification of ‘self’ when a baby looks in a mirror,” says Lazar.

“A smartphone camera is not a mirror, but at a certain point, a child will recognize themselves. A baby is even less likely to recognize themselves if a silly selfie filter is used,” Lazar explains.

Though in the early stages, researchers are studying AR filter-induced body dysmorphia.

Elementary aged

The World Health Organization has emphasized the importance of minimizing screen time because of its relationship to ongoing sedentary states.

We all know how important physical activity, proper sleep, and playtime are for developing children (and anyone, really). Excessive screen time can mess with sleep hygiene and leave young children sitting still instead of getting up to play or move.

But keeping a smartphone away from your elementary school child can be incredibly challenging.

“Having a smartphone is a status symbol to many elementary school children,” explains Lazar. Even a parent with the best intentions might struggle with their child’s social pressure to have their own phone to talk with their friends.

The ability to track children in family finder apps is also an appeal to caregivers.

But the benefits of increasing a child’s social connections to friends and family may come with risks, too.

A 2018 study of elementary school children found a correlation between increased screen time use and behavioral issues — like conduct problems, hyperactivity, and inattention.

Many have preached the downsides of too much screen time — but you might have noticed that many of the major emerging studies were from before 2020.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, children were shut into lockdown and forced to distance learn, meaning more screen time. Kids across the country needed to boot up laptops and tablets to connect with their classes online, do homework, and read e-books.

Teens

As kids get older, they develop a better understanding of themselves, how they’re perceived by others, and how they fit into the social structures around them.

But this sense of self can be skewed or warped when teens put too much emphasis on social media, or absorb too many of the “wrong” messages online.

In addition to the psychological and developmental debates about smartphone use, concerns about the impact on physical health often get mixed up with myths and rumors.

Myth: Radio frequency from your phone is linked to cancer

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), substantial evidence has shown no link between radio frequency and cancer from the exposure levels set by the FCC.

Myth: Millenials are growing horns because of neck strain

This claim went viral in 2019 following a study that found an increased number of young people had bone growths at the base of their skull. Media outlets were quick to call these “horns” even though they’re bone spurs and aren’t made up of the protein that grows horns.

While suggestions were made for possible causes, no statistical links could conclude cellphone use or bad posture were to blame.

Fact: Looking at your cellphone right before bed can make your sleep less effectively

Research has found that extended exposure before bed to blue light from bright screens can suppress the amount of melatonin released. This can interfere with your circadian rhythms and make both falling asleep and waking refreshed difficult.

Caregivers might consider not just how much time their kids spend looking at screens, but what information the screens are giving their little ones.

“Younger children are exposed to impossible beauty standards earlier, as well as the anxiety that can come with knowing exactly what their friends are doing at any point,” explains Lazar. “Lives are curated and can look picture perfect on social media, presenting an overall unrealistic expectation of what happiness is.”

This may also be one reason why some teens develop anxiety and depression symptoms with excessive screen use.

In an ideal world, you could ensure your child isn’t exposed to smartphones until they’re able to process its images and messages. But as smartphones become more and more of a necessity in our culture, that level of abstinence seems virtually impossible.

The best we can do for now is try setting reasonable limits on screen time while kids are young.

You can also check in frequently as they get older to make sure they know they’re loved and have worth — regardless of how many likes and follows they have.

You can bookmark the best apps to help you safeguard your kid’s phone use.