On 60 Minutes, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, discussed with Anderson Cooper the evolving digital age children are growing up in today and how his research hopes to uncover the impact this new era has on a child’s developing mind.

Newswise — It may seem as though digital devices and touch screens like the iPad have been around for decades, but the reality is that these devices have only been around for about 10 years. In that short amount of time, they have become ingrained into everyday life, but research on their impact is limited. What concerns researchers like Dr. Dimitri Christakis is that we don’t yet understand the effects these devices may have on young children, and so that’s why they’ve taken center stage in many of his research studies.

Christakis isn’t advocating for taking screens away from children. He simply hopes he can help parents and caregivers better understand and navigate how devices like the iPad can fit into their lives in a healthy way.

“The point isn’t that we should take away all digital devices, but rather that we should come at it from a different perspective,” said Christakis. “We should ask, ‘How can we help children live healthy lives in a digital world that they’re immersed in from birth?”

Christakis’ lab at Seattle Children’s Research Institute focuses on children from birth to age 5, and examines actionable strategies that promote children’s healthy social, cognitive and emotional development.

“The truth is young children spend more time with screens than they do with anything else, so for me, it becomes front and center in the lab,” said Christakis. “We’ve clearly shown in our preliminary data that these interactive screens have special allure for young children. They command their attention in a way that traditional toys don’t. We have concern that it can interfere with normal child and caregiver interactions and can even become a compulsion to play with them to the extent that they don’t do things young children would otherwise normally do in their day-to-day lives.”

Digital device concerns

According to Christakis, he has two fundamental concerns.

“We know that the use of these devices is incredibly gratifying to young children and can lead to compulsive use,” said Christakis. “It activates the dopamine reward reflex. For young children who from the day they are born trying to figure out causality or cause and effect, the idea that they can touch a screen and make something happen is incredibly rewarding. There isn’t anything wrong with it, it’s a fundamental and important experience, but it can be so gratifying that they can choose to do that at the expense of all other things.”

One particular experiment, which was shown on 60 Minutes, examines this risk. During the experiment, children 14 to 24 months of age are given a musical instrument to play with for an allotted amount of time. While the child plays with the toy, a researcher gives the child directional cues, examining how easily the child can be distracted from their toy. Next, the child is given an iPad that incorporates a similar musical instrument in the form of an application. What the researcher evaluates is whether a child is more distracted by the traditional toy or the iPad, and if at the end of the experiment the child is able to easily give the device back.

“What we’ve found in studies looking at traditional toy use in 18 – 24 month olds, is that they will spend 20 minutes a day on average with their favorite toy being it blocks or a truck or doll,” said Christakis. “Most parents report that their children will spend much more time on an iPad, which raises two questions. Why would they spend so much more time on an iPad and what does that time come at the expense of? The typical 6 – 24 month old child is only awake for about 12 hours a day. One of the things parents have to be mindful is what is being displaced.”

The grocery store is a great example. It is a situation where a child could be very happy with an iPad, but what’s being displaced is potentially a very interactive experience with a caregiver and child.

“There is a lot for a child to look at and a lot of things parents can talk about,” said Christakis.

For example, like pointing out various fruits and vegetables.

“In the absence of an iPad, parents typically talk to their child all the time to keep them happy while they are sitting in the cart,” said Christakis. “All of that is extremely beneficial to children’s cognitive and social development. The question is whether or not the iPad can meaningfully replace those interactions. My hunch is that it cannot. I think of those interactions between a parent and a child as being fundamentally formative.”

How much is too much?

Although research is still limited in this area, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does offer recommendations. In a policy statement co-authored by Christakis, the AAP recommends avoiding digital media use (except video-chatting) in children younger than 18 to 24 months and limiting children 2 to 5 years of age to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming.

“You never get your early childhood back,” said Christakis. “Those early experiences are incredibly important. The first three years of life are not only important for brain growth, but also for forming the foundational architecture of the mind.”

And so as more digital devices and experiences become ubiquitous in everyday life, Christakis and his team will continue their research.

“We have to think about the time children are spending with screens,” said Christakis. “How do we both optimize it and minimize it? How do we make it a positive experience, and how do we ensure it’s not the dominant experience? It’s complicated, which is we’re dedicated to furthering our investigation into this issue.”