Some parents use digital media platforms for providing learning in the form of nursery rhymes and elementary-level teaching videos to their toddlers, while others use the gadgets just for keeping children engaged at dinner time or when they want some time alone. However, clinical experience shows the use of digital technology as a pacifier is happening at the expense of the much-needed recreational time with other toddlers and family members. Recent evidence from neuro-imaging studies shows that screen addiction in toddlers or younger children can result in several cognitive deficits and information processing problems.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also discourages any amount or type of screen media and screen time for children below two years of age and no more than one to two hours of total screen time per day for children older than two years.
Dr. Sameer Malhotra, director (mental health and behavioral sciences) at Max Super Specialty Hospital in New Delhi said, "Excessive screen use at the cost of human interaction can affect social-communication skills and family bonding in the toddlers. This means that if toddlers are exposed to a large amount of screen time early on, it could manifest in the form of cognitive deficits later on in life."
Dr. Samir Parikh, director (mental health and behavioral sciences) at Fortis Heathcare said, "Undeniably, there are many apps offering opportunities for the kids to develop skills related to planning, strategizing and problem-solving. However, such opportunities cannot serve as a substitute for the unstructured and more conventional forms of interactions and socialization in the real world."
Imaginative play and group activities help children learn the value of sharing, trust building, empathy, teamwork, abstract thinking and other communication skills necessary to prepare them to be adept at dealing with the social and emotional demands in the future.
Screen addiction can also put children at the risk of developing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It can also hamper language and speech development. Experts said that an overuse of digital technology can directly impact the child's overall social and emotional development as it would restrict their exposure to the stimuli in the real world, with a greater preoccupation in the virtual world of technology.
Dr. Parikh said, "Over-dependence could lead to social alienation and deprivation of the opportunities to interact with peers and significant others which are vital to understand the nature of reciprocity and socio-emotional development of the child."
Dr. Preeti Singh, clinical psychologist with Paras Hospitals in Gurgaon said, "We are witnessing more cases of expressive speech delays because of excessive exposure to screen time. I would say that with too many gadgets around, these are the warning signs of early childhood problems like autism, speech delays and lack of social skills. Extreme cases of addiction can cause structural change in the brain. It can lead to impaired cognitive functioning, impulse inhibition, increased sensitivity to rewards and insensitivity to loss."
Dr. Parikh further added, "While there are some parents who are concerned about their child's overdependence on technology as a primary means of leisure, it is more common for them to express such concerns and seek help as the child grows older. It happens when the excessive screen use begins to interfere in their studies and other areas of functioning."
For the parents, the need of the hour is to limit the screen exposure for their toddlers and let the tiny souls explore the world on their own.