Special Report: Baby Gadget Boom

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - They can download apps, Facetime with family, and conquer Candy Crush Saga, all before they can even talk.

We're talking about the toddlers of today--the very first generation that's been plugged in since birth.

While sometimes a smartphone can be an easy babysitter, do you know what it's doing to your child's brain?

Newschannel 3 looked into it in our Special Report, Baby Gadget Boom.

Nothing gets two year old Breanna Saylor moving quite like a screen full of monkeys.

She can't even string together full sentences quite yet, but maneuvering mom's iPad? That's almost innate.

I've never really showed her how to do anything, said Bree's mother Chelsea.

Little Bree knows how to swipe screens, "x" out of pop-ups, and even trash her virtual masterpieces.

And she's not the only 'iToddler' out there. She's part of the so-called "app generation."

"This is a world that's far far different from that of their grandparents and their parents," said WMU Associate Professor of Education Technology Robert Leneway.

That's true even of their older siblings.

A new report shows nearly 40-percent of kids under two have used a smartphone or tablet.

That number has quadrupled in just the past two years.

Pop culture likes to predict what will become of these kids, who are growing up engulfed in virtual reality.

But the reality is, no one really knows.

"It's sort of subtle and unfortunately you may not see the effects til later," said Dr. Allan Lareau, a pediatrician at Rambling Road Pediatrics in Portage.

Dr. Lareau spends his free time sifting through studies.

"One that was published in one of the pediatric journals showed clearly a really negative impact on screen exposure in the first two years of life, that it has a negative impact on cognitive development and that's really significant," he said.

In that study, as media exposure went up, predicted language and cognitive scores sank.

"What we know about those very young brains, they don't get a lot cognitively," said Sandhya Sood-McMillen, with ProMed Pediatrics. "They're not able to pay very much attention to what's going on on that screen. And so actually interacting with a person, talking to a parent, is going to do much more for their speech development than some of those fast-paced things they're looking at on those screens."

In fact, researchers say touch screen technology is actually 're-wiring' kids' brains.

"We know that they are visual learners," Dr. Leneway said.

Dr. Leneway explained this to us using a study out of the University of Rochester.

Participants were shown 100 images and 100 words. Adults remembered about 75-percent of the words and 25-percent of the images.

In the younger, more tech-savvy group--the results flip-flopped.

This is a way that individuals and the human race is adapting to its digital environment.

If there's one thing we know: smart technology is here to stay.

But if you don't use it as a 24-7 babysitter, we're told it's not all bad.

"With the use of technology, kids can become more creative and creativity is one of the skills that's desperately lacking," said Dr. Leneway. "They can become self-motivated learners so they can go out and find answers on their own."

iPad use is also booming in children's hospitals, like Bronson.

Child-life specialists use apps that simulate big machines, like MRI's, and others that distract kids from painful procedures.

"We look at it as a therapeutic tool to help children cope while they are in the hospital," said child life specialist Cate Koopmans.

Plus, there are countless educational apps out there.

Still, pediatricians recommend no screen time for kids under two, and limiting all other kids to an hour a day or less.

Most parents say so far their techy tikes aren't really struggling to unplug.

Little Bree quickly ditched her virtual monkeys for a stuffed one.

Even so, experts have a final piece of advice.

"I would tell parents stay tuned," said Sood-McMillen. "Because I think the studies are kind of ongoing right now and we don't know what the outcome of a lot of these are going to be."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen exposure for children under two.

Pediatricians say those critical years should, instead, focus on face-to-face interaction and free play.

For those of you who feel like your children's smartphone skills are surpassing yours, WMU offers a variety of educational technology classes.
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