Everything You Already Believe About How Devices Affect Kids is Probably True (Good and Bad)

How are handheld digital devices shaping child development? Parents have a lot of worries about kids and handheld digital devices. From how much kids crave them to how much they allow kids to use them, any parent can find something to stress over when it comes to kids’ digital lives.

But, knowledge is power! Put some of those worries to bed as we catch you up on the current research. While there remains much to be learned about the influence of handheld digital devices on development, available research does point to the positive and adverse effects. Read on for some important and surprising facts about how handheld digital devices are shaping kids development.

Cognitive Development Increases Through All Kinds of Play

Many parents innately understand that there is a correlation between play and cognitive development. We call play “the work of childhood” because this is how they discover cause-and-effect, spatial relationships, and problem-solving. They also develop working memory, attention maintenance, and number sense through play as well; especially when they are able to exercise these skills in connection with caring adults. Much of this development occurs through symbolic play, imitation, and classification (grouping, sorting, finding likenesses). Kids can actually practice a lot of these skills with games and interactive educational apps.

The worry is that by focusing too much attention on a handheld digital device, kids will miss out on the learning that comes from physically manipulable toys and other creative play in the real world. However, what research shows us is that there actually isn’t a noticeable effect on kids’ academic outcomes. In fact, digital game play can actually boost some cognitive skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and hand-eye coordination. This being said, kids still need lots of real-world play and device-free time to allow sensory learning and daydreaming to take place.

An exception to this finding is for kids preschool age and younger. For this group, it is quite clear that handheld devices are counter to these little ones’ development. Early learning all depends on relationships with trusted caregivers and lived experience. Replacing the hands-on learning that very young children achieve through play in the real world with screen-learning might well hinder the sensorimotor and visual-motor skills needed for math and science learning and application. Still, educational apps likely increase early literacy for preschoolers.

Attention Deficit Might Be Affecting Us All, Though

Much to parents’ chagrin, kids’ attention skills appear to be adapting to the prevalence of handheld digital devices in the environment. Researchers are finding that today’s kids pay a lot of partial attention (i.e., multitasking) and have a harder time attending for longer periods the way their pre-internet parents were able to growing up. On one hand, to contend with the gargantuan flow of information they’re exposed to every day, 21st-century kids need to be able to shift their attention at a level that was unprecedented before the rise of the internet. The fear is that they still need to be able to focus long enough to learn, attend to, and complete tasks.

Educators are finding a shift in the attention spans of their students. Anecdotally, this is probably affecting us all; as many parents are finding their own attention spans shrinking with the uptick in their time spent online. But, where many adults are practiced at focusing their attention for long periods, digital native children are not as equipped to focus at the same level.

A blessing and a curse? The takeaway: While multitasking may be a new skill we embrace, kids also need to practice paying more focused attention. There are so many ways to do this, from training the mind in mindfulness meditation to rewards systems for completed chores.

Social Emotional Skills Are Best Developed Offline

Handheld digital devices support kids’ social-emotional well-being when used responsibly. They allow kids to connect with each other and find support online in ways that a simple telephone could not provide. They also allow kids who may not otherwise reach out socially, to forge connections and find a sense of belonging through the use of social platforms. Certain apps can even help kids build their social skills. Handheld digital devices help kids form stronger bonds with loved ones by communicating through text and face-to-face communication with distant relatives. In this way, these devices can boost development.

On the other hand, when overused, they may be hindering certain emotional skills kids need to develop to function in the world. Social-emotional development happens in the context of relationships. When toddlers and preschoolers are handed a digital device to help them calm down, they are missing the chance to learn how to self-regulate, something humans have evolved to do with the aid of their caregivers.

Among preschoolers and toddlers who spend too much time on digital devices, pediatricians notice increased tantrums as the devices are taken away. They are actually experiencing withdrawal. This is due to the compulsion loop that we all experience as we tap and swipe our way to dopamine-rich handheld experience. These little ones are actually addicted to their devices, as are older kids and adults alike.

Further, according to Daniel Riseman, children’s book author and president of Riseman Educational Consulting, “researchers have discovered that the overuse of online devices places children in a “digital fog” in which they feel fatigued, irritable, and distracted. To combat this mental burnout, the brain secretes more cortisol and adrenaline. While these hormones increase energy levels in the short term, they lead to depression and alter neural circuitry for self-regulation over the long run.”

Fine Motor Skills Can Be Increased

Have you ever watched a baby swipe the page of a book and then look puzzled when it didn’t change? Pretty incredible, but not just for the remarkable way they learn so much so fast, but also because handheld devices help kids develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination!

However, they also are causing a lot of strain on the spines of growing kids. In fact, looking down at a handheld device is equivalent to an eight-year-old child sitting on the base of your neck. As a result, posture is changing, and so is vision. Handheld digital device users are developing nearsightedness at unprecedented rates.

How To Prevent Negative Outcomes

The American Academy of Pediatrics has instituted guidelines for children’s exposure to technology. Sticking to them will help ensure your child develops free of the negative outcomes cited above.

Infants should have no contact, toddlers should only see high-quality programming (like Sesame Street), watched with caregivers, three to five-year-olds are allocated one hour per day, and six to 18-year-olds are allotted two hours per day. Despite these guidelines, kids are often spending much more than the recommended time on handheld digital devices and other screens. Despite all the positive skills these gadgets have to offer, research shows that too much time can negatively affect development.

Help kids strike a balance. Don’t rely on handheld devices when a young child needs soothing. Try helping them develop the ability to regulate their emotions by connecting and redirecting, instead. For older kids, be sure they know that just like drugs, these things are addictive and actually change the architecture of their growing brains. Be sure kids balance their handheld time with plenty of healthy activities like time outdoors, connecting with others in-person, physically making things, and playing with manipulable toys. Above all, as a parent influencing kids’ behavior, model a healthy relationship with handheld devices yourself.


Jenny Kepler, MA, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer who has been helping families navigate parenthood for over ten years. Her office is in downtown Portland, OR where she does in person therapy with adults, couples, and families. She also offers parent coaching over the phone for people who can’t see her in Portland. http://jennykepler.com/

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