Phones and the Toddler

As technology continues to advance and becomes interlinked with our everyday functions, the presence of tablet and phone devices in the home increases. Children are now accessing devices at younger ages with 90% of young children having access to a tablet or phone device (Rideout, 2017).

Research has found that the caregiver responses of parents to their child are negatively impacted by phone use (Abels et at, 2018). The ethnographic study by Abels et al, which involves observing families in their environment, found that the timeliness, likeliness to respond, and strength of caregiver responses was adversely impacted by their phone use. Essentially, phones were distracting parents and hindering how present they were for their children.

Parental responsiveness is important for child development (Darling and Steinberg, 1993). We know that the ability of a parent to respond to the needs of the infant is fundamental in healthy psychological development. The parent being able to respond to the needs of the baby helps the baby to feel safe, to develop a healthy view of the world, to trust the world around them, to trust that their caregiver can respond to their needs. All of these factors lead to healthy emotional development. Children require their parents to be responsive in order to help them learn about boundaries and emotional regulation. When parents are unable to be emotionally present for their child, the child may become distressed and unable to regulate their own emotions which can cause significant problems for the child as they develop. As such, any opportunity that we have to remove elements of our lives that could result in us as the parent being emotionally unavailable at times, should be considered.

Most psychoanalytic and psychological research and theories place emphasis on the importance of the mother-baby attachment from birth in the healthy development of the individual. The main concepts are the mother’s ability to understand the needs of her baby and to respond in a timely manner, such as recognising the cries of the baby and giving it what it needs; teaching the baby to regulate their emotions; setting boundaries and supporting our children as they learn about the integration of the good and bad elements of life; all of which result in the infant feeling safe and supported by the world around them. There are a number of circumstantial factors which may impact a parent’s ability to do these things, such as if the parent is suffering with addictions, including addiction to devices, mental illness, absent parents, physical illness which may impact the parents’ ability to attach to the baby, and physical distance from the infant. Ultimately, the child will have the best chance at developing secure mental health if they have a secure attachment to their primary caregivers.

The early environment for an infant is crucial and instrumental in their development. As discussed above, the importance of attachment to the primary caregiver has an impact on their psychological development. What we don’t yet know is how much devices impact the development of a baby. For example, apps on devices which aim to offer a simulated version of a real life toy such as a mirror, may not have the intended impact that we hope for, there isn’t enough evidence to say with any validity that apps are soothing or helpful for the infant. Babies enjoy the sensorimotor elements of 3-dimensional play and it’s likely that they would explore a device in a sensorimotor way rather than in the manner it a device is intended for. It is important for development that babies have access to toys to play with rather than screens to watch. The infant’s auditory system is developing between the ages of 0-3 months and therefore they are unlikely to engage with screens of a device but when parents use these devices to calm their baby, they may actually be causing the baby to feel irritated as it craves attention from a person over a device. There is evidence of a relationship between screen use and excessive crying in infants (Thompson, Adair, and Bentley 2013).

Simply put, there are many significant developmental milestones that babies go through in the first two years of life and there isn’t yet enough research to ensure that device use in this age group isn’t dangerous or a hindrance to their development from an auditory, visual-spatial, language, understanding of self and others, sensorimotor and emotional perspective. Consequently, we as parents need to consider that there may be an adverse impact for the psychological development of our toddler when allowing them to have regular access to devices.

What we do know is that there is evidence to suggest that device use can impact how a toddler behaves, that their ability to regulate their emotions and behaviour can be affected by device use (Kucrikova & Radesky, 2017). We also know that parental device use can impact parental responsiveness to their child and that parental responsiveness is an important factor in the emotional development of young children (Radesky et al, 2016), furthermore because children learn by imitation, parental screen time is strongly associated with the screen time of 0-8 year olds (Lauricella et al, 2015). With this in mind, our use of devices when around our children and how much we allow our children to use devices, may have an impact on their emotional and psychological development.

Technology can displace meaningful real life interactions and can lead to conflict and tension within the family unit, conversely devices can offer a sanctuary when someone feels the need to withdraw from a stressful or challenging situation and crave some time on their own. We won’t all be ditching our devices because there are many positive elements to using our devices but having an awareness of the impact that they have on our mental health, on our ability to be present for those around us, as well as the impact of devices on our children, it can empower us with the knowledge to make informed decisions regarding our choices relating to the integration of devices into our family unit.

Main Risks:

  • Can adversely impact parental responsiveness to child needs
  • Can impact attachment with child.
  • A lack of research regarding the impact of devices on developmental milestones in children aged 0-2 years.

What can I do?

  • Ensure that babies have toys to play with which have an evidence base to aid in developmental milestones.
  • Limit device use for babies and toddlers as much as possible.
  • Limit device use when you are around your infant.
  • Be mindful of how your reaction times and responses to your infant differ when you are using your device.
  • Consider setting usage limits on your own device time.
  • If you are using your device often, consider why you are on your device often. Is there something that you are distressed about which is causing you to use your device? Are you lonely? Once you know why you are using your device, you can make changes to your device use behaviours.


Darling, N., & Steinberg, L. (1993). Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 487–496

Garg, R. (2021). “its changes so often”: Parental non-/Use of mobile devices while caring for infants and toddlers at home. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 5(CSCW2), 1-26.

Natalia Kucirkova and Jenny Radesky. 2017. Digital media and young children’s learning: How early is too early andwhy? Review of research on 0-2-year-olds

Jenny S Radesky, Caroline Kistin, Staci Eisenberg, Jamie Gross, Gabrielle Block, Barry Zuckerman, and Michael Silverstein. 2016. Parent perspectives on their mobile technology use: The excitement and exhaustion of parenting while connected. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 37, 9 (2016), 694–701

Alexis R Lauricella, Ellen Wartella, and Victoria J Rideout. 2015. Young children’s screen time: The complex role of
parent and child factors. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 36 (2015), 11–17

Rideout V. The Common Sense census: Media use by kids age zero to
eight. Common Sense Media; 2017
Thompson, A. L., Adair, L. S., & Bentley, M. E. (2013) ‘Maternal characteristics and perception of temperament associated with infant TV exposure’, Pediatrics, 131(2): 390-397.