Anything beyond an hour of screen time for young children could harm their development in speech and other areas. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

How are you reading this? On your phone? A computer? An iPad? Tablet?

Technology is all around us these days. It is inescapable.

While this has its known upsides—educational apps can improve math and reading skills, for instance—it also has its hang-ups.

One thing technology has significantly changed is what children of all ages see and do.

Watch your kids closely this week. Are they playing outside, or do they more often have their eyes glued to some electronic device?

This new generation of youngsters is growing up with media all around them.

As an adult, I’m surprised that my local gas station feels the need for me to watch TV while getting gas for my vehicle. But every time I fill up my car, it’s there—a TV screen broadcasting the latest news clips or sports highlights.

Are there any restaurants left that don’t have televisions?

A breastfeeding support group I led, called “Mom to Mom,” had included a special topic at each meeting. We recently had some ladies from the organization Parents as Teachers come in and share developmental tasks for babies of different ages.

One question that came up: When should parents let babies or toddlers use phones or tablets? The discussion ran the gamut, but I’ll refer here to some news articles to examine the topic.

Aim for 1-hour limit

A 2015 article in Time Health presented some alarming findings from a study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting that year.

The study, which surveyed 370 parents of children ages 6 months to 4 years old, found that by age 2 most children have used mobile devices. About 53 percent of children age 1 and younger had watched TV, 36 percent had “touched or scrolled a screen,” 15 percent had used apps and 12 percent had played some type of videogame.

And as children age, the time on technology only increases.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages television time for children age 2 and younger and, in its most recent guidelines, it recommends limiting screen time to 1 hour per day for children ages 2 to 5.

Other studies have suggested that the more time young children spend on electronic media, the more it may negatively affect areas such as speech development.

‘Goldilocks effect’

An interesting article about childhood development recently caught my attention.

It discussed the work of John Hutton, PhD, a Cincinnati Children’s Hospital pediatrician and researcher who used an MRI machine to study the brain activity of children during various levels of engagement with media.

He studied 27 children, all around the age of 4.

The MRI machine would scan the children’s brains during three different storytelling scenarios: a story with audio only, a storybook with pictures and audio, then an animated cartoon.

As the children listened to the stories or looked at the pictures and listened, Hutton found that certain media worked better than others to engage their minds.

He dubbed it the “Goldilocks effect,” in that one condition involves too much engagement (“too hot”), one lacks engagement (“too cold”) and one condition is “just right.”

The audio-only condition was too cold. “The language networks were activated, but there was less connectivity overall” and “the children were straining to understand,” the article stated.

When the children watched the animated cartoon, the conditions were too hot—the medium appeared to do all the work and the children were “expending the most energy just figuring out what it means.”

The story featuring illustration and audio provided conditions that were “just right.” It engaged the children’s brains and promoted increased connectivity in visual perception, imagery, default mode and language.

Books and boisterousness

So as you can see, while it’s easy to hand baby or your toddler a smartphone or tablet, there are usually many other options.

Like what? Read a book!

Even the youngest babies can learn from books. They learn to turn the pages and point out objects you ask about, and they’ll make sounds. You and your little one also enjoy the added benefit of bonding and fostering closeness.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is a wonderful program that provides free books to children, starting at birth and continuing until they enter school. Parents of all children, regardless of income level, can sign up for free.

Children learn best from human interaction.

Take time to play with your children, too, and encourage them to play on their own.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reminds us that “children learn to think creatively, problem solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills at early ages through unstructured, unplugged play. Free play also teaches them how to entertain themselves.”