Toddlers with tablets are trendy. So long, stacking and playing; tapping and swiping are the shiny skills of early childhood. As apps, platforms, and streamed content proliferate, parents and educators are left to ponder how screen media impact early learning. Does media immersion inspire bursts of techno-genius? Or does it set kids up for learning delays? Answers are just emerging, with concerning implications for children’s speech development, impulse control, school readiness, and more. 

One thing we know for sure: Young children are mad for mobile media. The time they spend with mobile devices has tripled since 2013, according to Common Sense Media’s 2017 Zero to Eight study, and now accounts for one-third of all media time. Personal ownership of devices has rocketed up: 42 percent of children 8 and younger have their own tablets, up from 7 percent in 2013.     

Media time is still limited for children younger than 2, who average 42 minutes daily with screens, the study shows. But children morph into mini media-mavens in late toddlerhood and beyond: 2- to 4-year-olds consume more than 2 1/2 hours of screen media daily; 5- to 8-year-olds, nearly three hours. Low-income children 8 and younger post the highest averages, consuming almost 3 ½ hours of screen media daily. 

These are big numbers for little people. What might impacts be? New research led by Catherine Birken, presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, reveals a link between early, intensive mobile screen time and speech delays. Each 30-minute uptick in very young children’s use of mobile devices was associated with a 49 percent increase in risk for expressive speech delays.

Too much television, a perennial kid favorite, jeopardizes school readiness skills. A 2017 study by Andrew Ribner, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, links two-plus hours of daily TV viewing with diminished math skills and reduced executive function, especially for low-income children. Executive function, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, encompasses impulse control, self-regulation, and mental flexibility — essential classroom skills.

Sensing the need for updated guidance, the AAP released new media recommendations in 2016. Children younger than 18-24 months should avoid screen media; 2- to 5-year-olds shouldn’t exceed one hour daily. School-age children benefit from a family media plan outlining expectations and limits. 

Time matters. But enforcing time limits, while good, isn’t sufficient. Restoring better things that screen media replace — interactions with adults, hands-on play, book reading — is critical. Low-income parents, whose children are disproportionately affected by media overuse, need additional support and help accessing books.  

Mindful of the connection between book access and school success, North Carolina lawmakers allocated funds during the 2017 legislative session to expand Imagination Library, a book gifting program for low-income children 0 to 5. In Durham, Book Harvest’s Book Babies program offers literacy resources, tips, and books to the families of Medicaid-eligible preschool children. During a child’s infancy and preschool years, Book Babies conducts 10-plus home visits, providing literacy coaching and delivering age-appropriate books. Children begin kindergarten with a home library of 100 books.

“Our goal is kindergarten readiness,” says Meytal Barak, Book Babies Team Leader. Book Babies’ non-prescriptive curriculum emphasizes early literacy goals, such as daily reading and rhyming games; one goal, says Barak, is avoiding screens for a child’s first three years and minimizing screens thereafter. Newly released results from a pilot study, conducted by Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy, show Book Babies children scored significantly higher than comparison children on a test of pre-literacy skills.

Bring on the books for those babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. It’s the devices and tablets that need a time-out.

Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.