Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Is it Okay to Let Your Toddler Play with the iPad?

Babies and cats with iPads are cute. Are they deprived?

The YouTube video: A magazine is an ipad that doesn't work is VERY cute.

But it's as challenging as the baby's expectations are predictable.

If your first experience with media tells you it moves and that if you touch it or move your fingers in a particular way it changes, of course that's what you expect all media to do. My favorite moment in the video is when the baby pushes on her leg to test and make sure her 'push' is working.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics has just come out with a new report that says that, cute as they are, babies and toddlers should spend as little time as possible with 'screens'.  Because the primary focus of current research is on televisions - and televisions are a major part of most family's media environments - the single most important message that can be taken from their revised recommendations is to limit both DIRECT TELEVISION (watching Bob the Builder) as well as INDIRECT EXPOSURE (playing in the living room while the family watches football).

But I would argue that the same argument they use for limiting television may well generalize to other forms of screen media as well - including the easiest of other 'screen's for babies to access: ipads.  Although it's doubtful that toddlers spend significant amounts of time with any type of screens other than tv's, computer games and - for wealthier children - phone apps and ipads - are rapidly becoming the most common form of media used other than music.

There is no such thing as screen time that is good for children under 2.

What's interesting about the report is why they say that.

It's NOT that the content is bad - they're not worried about violence, or loud noises and ear damage, or sexist messages.

The problem is that it is does nothing GOOD for babies. It's like leaving them in a crib staring at the ceiling with the radio on. The baby is safe and quiet and passive. They may even be quiet for a long time. But long term, that passivity and lack of stimulation can cause serious problems.

Screens are interesting.

All humans - and babies especially - are attracted to novelty.

Screens are inherently interesting because they MOVE. Every time a commerial comes on or a camera angle changes, or a little shake of the ipad makes it change color, babies' interest is sparked and they look at the screen.

They can't help it. We are hardwired to look for change in our environment. It's what tells us that there are wolves lurking.  (In the Comments section, you can see a very good technical discussion of this orienting response.)

Media designers take advantage of that. Every change draws our eyes to the screen. I suffer this problem constantly. My son or my husband is talking to me with my laptop open. An ad changes or facebook moves down a notch with a new message and my eyes immediately move from their face to the (much less important) information on my screen.

For babies, even the news or a documentary draws their eyes. Changing pictures and changing voice levels force them to look.

And that's the problem.

It's not what they do, it's what they don't do.

Child development is optimized when children engage in activities that are cognitively and sensorily stimulating. In other words - when they do things that pose new puzzles to solve or when make them feel new things.

  • Most screens ask for passive attention. You WATCH them. Although there are puzzle games for older children and adults, there are no worthwhile puzzle games for children under 2.
  • Screens provide a very limited sensory environment. Run your hand over a rug or the couch. Now run it over the screen of your ipad. Which is more interesting and provides a richer textural experience?  Which SMELLS? Which is more complex?  Playing with blocks, or stuffed animals, or pots and pans provides complex sensory information to a developing baby. Screens don't.
  • But don't screens provide visually stimulating data? Compared to what? Screens are two dimensional. They don't require babies to construct a 3 dimensional world. They have bright saturated colors. They rarely have shadows. Most importantly, they don't require the baby's eyes to focus on things that are at different distances.
  • Screens - and lack of sunlight - are bad for developing eyes. Staring at screens too long may cause the muscle's in the baby's eyes to atrophy. They certainly do that to adults. In addition, we blink less when we look at screens, and our eyes become dry. What effect does that have on developing babies? No one knows. But we do know that babies and children both require extended sunlight for their eyes to develop normally. And staring at screens precludes that.

Reading books on iPad screens interferes with sleep.

IPads are great for reading and many children's books look fantastic on their new retina screens. Some books are even interactive and little ones can touch the screen and the book will talk or sing or move. Fun!  But not before bedtime. IPad screens, unlike those of other reading devices, are backlit, like computer screens.  This makes them easy to read while snuggling in a dim room. But that light interferes with your sleep systems, telling the child (and you!) that it's time to wake up, not settle down.   Other eReaders like the Nook or Kindle use e-paper screens that emulate the reflective properties of layered cellulose. They don't pose the same problems. 

Screens can't play ping pong.  Even interactive ones, like ipads.

In a previous post, Six Things You Have To Do For Your Baby, the two most important things are:

  • Talk to them. The richer the language environment an infant experiences, the larger their vocabulary, the higher their intelligence, and the easier time they will have in school.
  • Play ping pong. Urie Bronfenbrenner, co-founder of Head Start, called the complicated interchange between babies and parents 'ping pong'. The baby smiles, the mother smiles back. The baby sticks out his tongue. So does mom. Those interchanges are the foundation of language (conversational turn-taking) and establish a pattern of coordinated behavior that provides a strong foundation for good attachment and sensitive caretaking.

Screens can talk (although many don't). But the language environment they provide is much less rich than the language environment you do. And they can't play ping pong. 

Bronfenbrenner wites: "Development, it turns out, occurs through the process of progressively more complex exchange between a child and somebody else-especially somebody who's crazy about that child."

Although babies can learn from interacting with an impoverished cognitive environment like an ipad, they do so slowly and inefficiently.

Playing peek-a-boo, reading a book, rolling on the floor with the dog, or banging on pots with spoons are all better for them. 

Why push babies to live in a digital desert when they can grow up in a much richer environment - the real world?

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Short Excerpts from the Academy's Practice Recommendations on Media

Their practice recommendations for pediatritions will download here.

  • The sheer amount of time spent in front of a screen does not engage active thinking or playing, creative pursuits, or talking in-depth with family and friends.
  • Media exposure at a young age (birth through age 2) often substitutes for important parent/caregiver/child activitiesthat encourage early brain development, such as playing, singing, and reading.  The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends reading to children every day, startingafter they are first born. Reading stimulates the development of the brain, language and a closer emotional relationshipwith a child.
  • Do not use television, videos, video games, or the computer as a baby-sitter. If you need quiet time, encourage your childto read, play a game, work on a puzzle, draw, or build something. Positively reinforce your child's efforts.

The full text of their Policy Statement on Children, Adolescents, Media, and Obesity is available here.

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

Follow me on Twitter! @pt_think_kids

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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