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Tuned-in toddlers rely heavily on mobile devices even in poor families, survey finds
A small survey of an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood finds startling penetration by and reliance on tablets and smartphones for young children. - photo by Eric Schulzke
A small survey of an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood finds startling penetration by and reliance on tablets and smartphones for young children, with the vast majority of households having both tablets and smartphones in the home and most 4-year-olds owning their own mobile device by the age of 4.

The survey, conducted at a pediatric clinic in a low-income urban area, suggests good news and bad news. The good news is that the income-based technological gap is not nearly as large as often supposed. The bad news is that children are left unsupervised for long periods of time.

Because of its limited scope, the survey is meant to point to further research, rather than firm conclusions, but the results were quite surprising on every level.

"Parents gave children devices when doing house chores (70 percent), to keep them calm (65 percent) and at bedtime (29 percent). At age 2, most children used a device daily and spent comparable screen time on television and mobile devices. Most 3- and 4-year-olds used devices without help, and one-third engaged in media multitasking. Content delivery applications such as YouTube and Netflix were popular," the study found.

Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Childrens Hospital, told the New York Times that he thought the study probably reflected reality elsewhere. Based on my observations of families with whom I work, I would not be surprised if these levels of device ownership and use were similar in many families, he said.

Thats huge, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, told the New York Times. If children are sitting by themselves glued to digital candy, we simply dont know what the consequences are for their early social development.

The study follows closely on a new policy announcement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which for 15 years had urged parents not to expose children under 2 to screens.

"In a world where 'screen time' is becoming simply 'time,' our policies must evolve or become obsolete. The public needs to know that the academys advice is science-driven, not based merely on the precautionary principle," Dr. Ari Brown, Dr. Donald Shifrin and Dr. David Hill wrote in American Academy of Pediatric News.

It's not really clear from the AAP report whether the organization has decided that earlier concerns about negative impacts from early screen exposure were overstated, or whether the doctors are simply bowing to and making the best of the inevitable.

To help parents navigate the maze, the AAP report offered a series of "key messages" for parents. Among other pointers, parents are urged to be careful about content, seek advice on the best content, engage the media with the children, ensure screen-free time during the day and set reasonable limits.