When a certain kind of preschool child - typically a 1/2 to 2 year old enters my clinic with both working parents often with a maid, is restless, fidgety, picking things at random, making unreasonable demands on the parents' attention, not speaking intelligible words, not responding to name call or simple commands, I just can't concentrate on my work. The parents tell me their child is very savvy with gadgets, mobiles and ipads, can play games, can look at whatsapp messages, look at YouTube and so on but when I talk to the child, he isn't interested, doesn't look me in the face, just makes unintelligible noises. He sometimes gets rebellious and the parent fishes out a mobile phone or presents him with an ipad. Peace returns and we are all able to get back to talking.
Often the parents may not even have realized that there is something wrong, unless the play school teacher or a visiting grand parent tells them something is not quite right. When we assess the child and point out that this could be possible autism, they go into denial mode and try to emphasize the various skills the child has. Is this autism or is it just screen addiction? Are these different entities or is there an overlap?
Optimal development of a child depends on more than just good nutrition and physical well being - healthy interactions with parents and caregivers, and emotional well being matter too. Nowadays, nuclear families are the norm with often both parents working. Care of the child is relegated to a live in maid or day care environments. Another common scenario is couples who have moved abroad on short work visas. Dad works, mom has to juggle home, child care and other responsibilities. And the easiest baby sitter TV and other gadgets it is... For toddlers these are difficult times indeed!
Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best by 2-way communication. Language development is a good barometer of the environment the child is growing up in and talk time between caregiver and the toddler is crucial for this process. Young parents have competing demands for their time, and have to balance their jobs or career with building a home and family, and it is so easy to use the TV or an iPad as a babysitter.
The American Academy of Pediatrics used to advise against any screen exposure below the age of 2. But keeping the present day scenario in perspective, it is more realistic to emphasize that rather than passive video watching or game playing, the parent sits with the child and interacts to enhance the learning experience and of course doing this in a structured way.
If your 1 - 2 year old doesn't respond to his name or does not obey simple commands, don't just dismiss it as 'he is engrossed in what he is doing'. Please discuss this with your pediatrician. Most vaccines are over by 1 1/2 - 2 years and if the child is otherwise healthy, the number of doctor visits may become less after this. Especially in case of parents with transferrable jobs, they might lose contact with the doctor and problems might get missed.
If there is one message I would like to leave, it is this - Please take time to talk to your child. Whatever age he/ she is. Sing to him, coo and babble with him, talk nonsense, show him the crows and pigeons around like grandmas did, look him in the face and watch his world light up. The emotional bonds that are forged, are forever and what better foundation for all round development!