One-third of kids use touchscreens by age one

For today's toddlers, the pixel is the new building block. And according to new research, more than one-third of babies are tapping and swiping on smartphones and tablets before they can walk or talk.

In a study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego, researchers from the pediatrics department of Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia found that 36 percent of kids in a survey had touched or scrolled on a screen before they reached their first birthdays. Fifteen percent had used apps by that time.

By age two, the majority of kids were using digital devices, watching TV and playing video games -- and more than one-quarter were using mobile devices for at least an hour a day. That figure jumped to 38 percent of 4 year olds.

"On the one hand, we have lots of experience with television, and we know that it has some pitfalls and some dangers for children in terms of their educational learning. Some benefits as well," pediatrician Laura Jana told CBS News. "Mobile devices, when we're talking about screens and things, are so new that this is a really important survey that has given us some initial information about just how prevalent the use is in very young ages."

Dr. Jana was particularly concerned about the statistics for children in the zero-to-two-year age range, a key phase of development. "We know that children learn best and their brains develop best with human interactions, not screen interactions," she said.

Additionally, too much screen time could take away from important experiences, such as time spent in active play. This could also continue to drive the worrisome trends of childhood obesity and sleep issues.

"At the same time, I will say there's tremendous potential when you're looking at educational technologies, making them accessible," Jana said. "Trying to find that balance will be the real trick here.

The survey, involving 370 parents from a mostly urban, low-income minority community, found that most often, parents used smartphones or tablets as distractions while they ran errands or did chores around the house.

"We do need to acknowledge the fact that in the 21st century those that are skilled at using technology are most likely to succeed," said Jana. "The question, though, comes backs to some core early childhood and parenting principles."

In early child development, human interaction, face-to-face time, language development and social-emotional learning are critical, and Jana said it's important to balance screen time with play time, and for parents to not only play with their children, but to also connect what their kids are doing on devices with what they do in the real world.

  • Amanda Schupak

    Amanda Schupak is the science and technology editor at CBSNews.com