Five-month-old Aayansh Mukul is smitten by his parents' cellphones. As soon as someone in the room taps a screen, the boy tilts his head in their direction.
"Once he gets his hands on a phone, he stares at it without blinking, tapping the screen and clicking on buttons all the time" says his father, Abhijat, 30, a government employee from Delhi. "No matter how much you try to divert his attention, his eyes are just glued to the phone."
He struggles to hold the device in his tiny hands, but he's still always grabbing at it, adds Aayansh's mother Roshima Kaul, 29, an interior designer.
"I have always been against toddlers being given gadgets. Now, to think that my own son is showing an inclination at such a young age is very worrying," Roshima adds.
Parents around the world are becoming worried too. A study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies' (PAS) annual meeting in San Diego, US, last month stated that babies as little as six months old are playing with cellphones, with more than 33% of the 370 babies surveyed, in the six months to four year age group, tapping on smartphones and tablets even before they learn to walk or talk. By the age of one, the study found, 14% of toddlers were playing on or with the devices for at least an hour a day. By the age of two, most children were using mobile devices.
The study also showed that 73% of parents were using mobile devices to distract their children while doing household chores and 60% while running errands; 65% admitted to using gadgets to calm a child, and 29% used them to put a child to sleep.
"We didn't expect kids to be using devices from the age of six months. Some children were in front of a screen for as long as 30 minutes," said lead author Hilda Kabali, MD, a third-year resident in the paediatrics department at the Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia.
In India too, doctors and parents are becoming increasingly concerned over children's use of tablet PCs and cellphones.
"I am shocked to see children fiddling with a smartphone through the entire session at my clinic," says Dr Sameer Malhotra, head of mental health and behavioural sciences at New Delhi's Max Super Speciality Hospital. "And these are not teenagers, they're barely five and six years old."
If not contained, addiction to online screens can lead to health issues and behavioural complications, say experts."Use of cell phones and laptops is a major cause for back and neck pain in children, and can result in postural deformities if not treated in time," says Dr Deepak Agrawal, additional professor, neurosurgery, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
Equally important is spending time with family members and other kids.
"Gadgets tend to make children mechanical, cutting them off from the real world. This can hamper their social skills," adds Dr Malhotra.
For parents, it's a dilemma - studies have shown how bright colours and moving images on a smart screen can help boost brain development, language skills and learning. The key, experts say, is regulating their use, especially when it comes to children.
"Parents should restrict their child's total electronic time to less than one hour every day - and this time should include all gadgets, TVs, smartphones and tablets," says Dr Anjana Thadhani, a consultant developmental paediatrician and visiting consultant at Mumbai's KEM Hospital.
The content to which the child is exposed matters too. "A gadget can be used to show the child videos about animals or shapes; only cartoons and games is not good," says Dr Raju Khubchandani, director of paediatrics at Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai.
The good news is, the trend is reversible. Ask Thane resident Mona Kaur, 38.
Her four-year-old son Aman was addicted to the iPad. Over six months, he became increasingly restless and ill-natured when separated from his online games. "He would throw things around, if you tried to take it away from him," she says. "What was even more worrying was that the games were not even educational. He would play Temple Run for hours. And if I took away the device, he would run to our neighbours and ask for their iPad."
About four months after he first discovered the tablet, Aman had begun to show signs of the hyperactivity that can often result from children spending long hours in front of a screen. "He started talking really fast, jumping on the sofa like the characters jumped in his games, he couldn't sit still while doing his homework, and worst of all, he was not playing with other kids in the neighbourhood any more," Kaur says.
That's when she decided to act. She slowly weaned Aman off the tablet, cutting his time from two hours to 30 minutes a day.
"Because he now found his real-world games boring, I joined him, and he started enjoying them again," Kaur says. "My husband started taking him out for cricket. To persuade him to play outdoor games, I told him it would make him taller and make his muscles stronger. I also started calling his friends over and they now often play interactive games like 'Simon Says'."
Over the past month, Aman's mother has taken his PC screen time down to zero. And she says he doesn't seem to miss it.
The solution often lies in the parents' hands, says Dr Thadhani. "You need to involve children in activities that are more interesting than the gadget, and lead by example. If a child sees parents take part in an outdoor activity, she will find that activity much more attractive."
Parents should limit their own gadget use in front of children. Kids should not be given toys that are replicas of gadgets. Find time to sit with them, no matter how busy you are. Read to them, play with them. And, if they are old enough, explain to them why you are rationing their gadget use.
Pulkit Sharma, clinical psychologist and psychoanalytical therapist at Delhi's Imago-Centre for Self