Raising Your Child in a Digital World:

Finding a healthy balance of time online without techno tantrums and conflict


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Digital Babies

There is no doubt that today’s children are born into a digital world. Children now experience ‘digitalised Childhoods’. What about very young babies- is this digital immersion appropriate? What impact is this ‘digital dunking’ having on their very plastic brain? As a Mum, and also as a children’s technology researcher, this is a question I have been pondering.


I was wandering around a toy store last week. I was amazed to find the huge number of digital toys that are now designed and marketed towards babies.  Well, to doting parents of babies. There are dribble-proof smartphone contraptions (Fisher-Price Apptivity case), activity gyms with iPhone attachments (Fisher-Price Apptivity Gym), plastic book covers that turn your iPhone or iPod Touch into an interactive book experience (Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Apptivity Storybook Reader) and potties with iPad attachments (the aptly named iPotty). Yes, there really are iPad potties. Technology is becoming more and more pervasive for our youngest babies.




It has been three years since I had my first baby. He was born a few months after the first iPad was released. Boy, how times have changed. There has been an explosion in the baby techno-toy market. As a children’s media researcher I have to admit that this scares me more than it excites me. This may come as a shock (as a children’s technology advocate). People, with the very best of intentions, have asked me if I will be buying a new activity-gym with an iPhone attachment or a dribble-proof case for my new baby. Many people are surprised when I answer an emphatic ‘NO!’



Do babies REALLY need techno-toys?

I have to declare that I am a little bit more conservative when it comes to babies and technology. I am talking very young babies here (less than 12 months).Why? I don’t think that babies, especially very young babies, need techno-toys such as touch phones and tablets. I don’t believe that they are learning from them (despite what the marketing materials will tell you). In fact, I think that the time spent using these devices would be better spent in other ways. The latest neuroscience research clearly spells out what babies actually need for optimal brain development. And it is simple.

Babies need:

* strong and warm ATTACHMENTS to a caregiver;

*to MOVE and EXPLORE what their bodies can do;

*to hear lots of LANGUAGE; and

*’serve and return’ interactions with adults.

BABIES DO NOT NEED SCREENS! Young babies need LAPS not APPS. They want to interact with faces not screens!

Basically, how your grandparents approached child rearing: ‘ancestral parenting’ is best for building your child’s brain. No app or device can replace these rich, human interactions, especially in the early days.

Given that babies are awake for limited hours each day, it is vital that we make very careful choices about how we use this time. Passively watching or swiping at a touch screen is not necessarily the best use of a baby’s time. It is not necessarily providing a baby with the ideal conditions to develop their brain. It is not going to make them a genius because they have been exposed to colours or letters.

Personally, I think that a baby would be better playing on their tummy and caressing a woolen mat, than swiping colours or watching a movie on an iPad.

Will techno-toys hurt my baby?

We don’t yet know precisely about if/how very young children learn with touch technologies (research is slowly catching up). However, we do know that children only start to learn from passive TV at approximately 18 months of age (despite what Baby DVDs claim). Touch devices are more interactive than passive TV or DVD viewing, so perhaps young children can learn from these more interactive devices. We don’t just know. I am not willing to take a gamble and conduct a living experiment with my next baby. There is plenty of time for tablets and phones!

In the very early days I believe babies need lots of ‘face-time’ where they interact with their caregivers (hear language and build an attachment) and goo and gaa (‘serve-and-return’ interaction). I don’t believe that they need gadgets to entertain them. Nothing can replace the sound of Mum or Dad singing to a baby (not even a cute app that sings songs or a book app that reads nursery rhymes).

Will a little bit every now and then ‘hurt’ them?

Now I will wear my practical parenting hat. Before you panic and think that you have caused adverse effects on your child because they have used your smartphone, take a deep breath and read on.

As a parent I understand that from time-to-time, using devices like the iPad or your iPhone to pacify or entertain a baby actually works (and is a life-saver). Sometimes the toy box is no longer appealing and won’t occupy your baby whilst you prepare a meal. I totally understand. So should we resort to these digital devices all the time to calm upset babies? No. We need to teach babies, even from a very young age that adults can help soothe them or that they can calm themselves. We do not need digital pacifiers for babies.

Can my baby actually learn from techno-toys?

Despite the marketing claims of many apps and techno-toys marketed towards young children, there is no known research that has proven that babies learn from screen-based media. The research on children’s toys suggests that the more the toy does for the child (i.e. the more technologically sophisticated the toy is), the less thinking that is required on the child’s behalf. If a baby only needs to swipe at a screen, or even worse, just lie there passively, to activate an on-screen display (say for example a movie or an animation), it is safe to say that there is minimal learning occurring on the baby’s behalf. Therefore, it is unlikely that very young babies will actually learn from these devices. Grab them some stacking cups or wooden blocks and see what they can do!

So tell me in the comments below, am I alone on this one? Am I being too conservative (perhaps it is my protective hormones kicking in)? Or do you agree: do babies REALLY need digital devices?

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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