We see it all the time these days: babies and toddlers playing with iPads, or with their parents' iPhones. I certainly see it in my office. Parents use these devices and similar ones to entertain their children — and parents say, to help them learn.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is, it depends.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 not have any "screen time" at all. This includes television, videos, computers and handheld devices. They have very good reasons for this recommendation. We know that active, exploratory play is best for babies and toddlers, along with interaction with nurturing adults. When a kid is sitting in front of a screen, none of that happens.
We also know that when kids spend a lot of time in front of the television, they are more likely to be overweight and have problems with attention. Fast-paced programming can get in the way of "executive function" skills (such as planning, negotiating, trouble-shooting and delaying gratification). These are crucial for both academic and social success. Exposure to violent programming can make kids more aggressive. We certainly don't want all this starting when children are very small, at a time when their brains are developing rapidly and in important ways.
However, some experts argue that iPads and other similar devices are different than traditional screens. They are interactive, they can be picked up and moved around, they can adjust to a child's level and learning—and they can be used with another person. They are certainly better for children than traditional screen devices. They may even be better than some toys, the ones that don't invite or encourage interaction or creativity.
While studies are underway to see how these devices affect children, babies and toddlers, it will likely be years before we have any definitive results. But given the pace of technology, parents can't wait years. Here is some advice based on what we know so far:
- Parents shouldn't use these devices because they think they will make their child smarter. Old-fashioned play, like playing with blocks or dolls, or listening to stories or playing at the park or making mud pies, will do more for your child's development than an iPad.
- Keep the use of these devices to a minimum, especially for little children. It's hard to give an exact recommendation for an amount of time, but definitely under an hour a day.
- Choose apps very carefully. The Common Sense Media website has lots of useful information and reviews.
- Use the iPad with your child. Let it be something that encourages interaction and play with you, rather than a baby sitter or baby calmer.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.