Digitally addicted toddlers? Study looks at young tech users

New local research is investigating whether the youngest tech users are getting obsessed. (KOMO News) 

SEATTLE -- It's not just teenagers spending massive amounts of time on phones and tablets. Try preschoolers! New local research is investigating whether the youngest tech users are getting obsessed.

Zevi Garrison took part in the research project. He is a busy Seattle two-year-old.

"Probably 95 percent of the day he's super, super cheerful," said mom Michelle Garrison. "The other 5 percent of the day, sometimes, the other end of the extreme."

One thing that can trigger a meltdown: turning off the iPad. We were there when screen time ended, and Mom had given Zevi a warning that they were almost done. But when the time came for her to say, "I know you like this game, but we're going to turn it off for right now," she was met with a series of "No, no, no!" as Zevi covered the device with his arms.

"We usually hold it to about 15, 20 minutes," Garrison said. "Definitely if he uses it for longer than that, we're much more likely to have meltdowns afterwards."

Dr. Dimitri Christakis is a national expert on young children and media. He says the typical preschooler spends more than four hours a day in front of a screen.

"Keep in mind, they're only awake for about 12 hours, so they're spending a third of their time in front of a screen," he said.

Dr. Christakis wants to look at how all that screen time affects young children, and if they could become addicted to digital devices.

He ran a group of toddlers through a test at his Seattle Children's Research Institute lab. First, kids got to play with an Elmo guitar.

Then a research assistant sweetly asked them to, "give it to me." Of the couple dozen children tested, 67 percent complied.

Next, the children played with an iPad, using an app that simulates musical instruments. This time, 61 percent of the kids handed it over when asked.

But when the toddlers got to play a more interactive iPad game with lots to see and hear, most of them refused. Just 47 percent gave up the iPad.

"They cling to it much much more," Dr. Christakis said. "The concern that raises is that this can become a compulsion."

Dr. Christakis says that happens when children always prefers the iPad over playing with friends or reading a book.

"That alone is telling and should be a warning sign for parents, because these other activities, these other experiences are so essential to children's cognitive, social and emotional development," he said.

Zevi is getting those other experiences. He loves being outside and playing with toys. And when it comes to his iPad, he knows the rules, even the ones that can be hard to follow.

After a minute of Zevi's protest, his mom suggested, "Do you want to give it a hug? Give it a hug and then we put it on the table." That worked. Zevi gave his iPad a hug, followed by a high five for his mom, and he was off to play with another toy.

"All of these gadgets are going to be around him his whole life," Michelle Garrison said. "I'd like him to be, as he's growing up with all these devices, to be developing skills around monitoring and regulating his own use, so it doesn't become something that overwhelms everything else."

Dr. Christakis used his initial findings from the small study to write up a grant proposal. If he gets funding, he'll expand his research on toddlers and their attachment to tablets and phones.

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