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My own iPad? Yeah, I’ve got that, say 42 percent of American kids

Gerald Herbert/AP/file 2011

Smartphones and tablets are now ubiquitous playthings among young Americans.

By Globe Staff 

When the toddlers at Creative Playtime in Brookline used to play with the preschool’s box of toy phones, they’d take a phone, sit down, chatter to the imaginary person on the other end of the line, hang up, and then play with something else.

But in recent years, kids as young as 2 have begun walking around as they talk, phones scrunched between their tiny ears and shoulders, necks crooked. “They were multitasking,” said the program’s founder, Paula Gopin. “We had to put away the box. It was limiting play.”

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Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that studies children’s relationship with technology, just released a survey showing an enormous spike in mobile media use by children 8 and under. And it shows what Gopin and her fellow teachers were already seeing: Mobile is having a big impact on the youngest members of society.

The study found that nearly half of kids 8 and younger — 42 percent — have a tablet of their own, up from less than 1 percent who owned their own tablets in 2011.

While kids, on average, are spending about the same amount of time with screens as they did in 2011 — about 2 hours and 20 minutes — the big change is which screen they’re watching. Mobile is now grabbing 48 minutes a day, up from just 5 minutes daily in 2011.

Common Sense Media chief executive Jim Steyer calls the shift from TV to mobile “seismic,” with “profound implications for parenting and childhood.’’

“Kids can take these [mobile devices] to bed,” he said. “They are not like a TV set, and anyone who says they are the same is kidding themselves. The big picture is about the impact on social, emotional, and cognitive development.

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“These devices have great benefits,” said the father of four. “But the downsides are very significant.”

Speaking with a reporter while at a conference, he lowered his voice. “You’ve got all these business guys glued to their blanking devices, and so is your 6-year-old.”

And of course kids don’t just have access to their own devices. They’re surrounded by them.

The survey found that 95 percent of families with children from infancy to age 8 now have a smartphone, up from 41 percent in 2011, and 78 percent have a tablet, up from 8 percent six years ago.

The study results come as concern about devices and what they’re doing to our children — our toddlers, our middle-schoolers, our teens — is running high. We’re afraid they’re interfering with play time, outdoor time, human connection.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, recommends that children ages 2 to 5 watch no more than one hour a day and only high-quality programs.

The recommendation states that “parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them” — something that may be less likely when shows or games are being played on a small screen.

It’s rare to meet a parent who doesn’t care about her child’s development, and yet, for the most part, it’s the parents who are buying all of these devices. What’s going on? Call it self-defense.

In Westwood, both of Jennifer Allaire’s daughters — the 2-year-old and the 4-year-old — have their own iPads. She limits their screen time to about half an hour a day, but without their own devices, she said, her phone was an object of desire.

“They would delete things on my phone and it was a mess,” she said.

Sarah Francomano, of Foxborough, used an iPad as a bribe to get her son William, now 7, off the pacifier. “He never asked for his ‘woobies’ back,” she said.

William’s older brother, Jack, 10, also enjoyed the purchase, as it meant that William stopped annoying Jack to use his iPad.

Meanwhile, even the very parents welcoming all these mobile devices into their homes are trying to fight back.

A Comcast survey released this week found that the vast majority of parents — 98 percent — agree that disconnecting from devices during mealtime improves family bonding, but 42 percent could not remember the last time their family had a device-free meal.

But the kids, it should be noted, aren’t the only ones dining while screening. According to the survey, more than half of parents have been told by their children to put their cellphones away during meals.


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com.