It is fascinating to watch an infant, who cannot yet talk or walk, play games on a tablet computer. But many parents wonder, should children so young be playing with these devices? Despite previous recommendations that children under age 2 should not use any media, a Seattle Children’s Research Institute expert now says children may benefit from playing with age-appropriate apps for 30 to 60 minutes each day.
In 2011, Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, was part of a panel of experts who supported a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraging the use of media by children under 2 years old. But in a new opinion essay, Christakis says that statement should be updated to address new technologies – specifically, the iPad and other tablet computers.
“The AAP statement was in press before iPads existed,” Christakis says. “It treats all screens the same, but there are a lot of theoretical reasons to believe tablet computers are quite different and prior research on traditional media doesn’t apply.”
While he still believes young children should not watch television, Christakis says tablets may be harmless, or even beneficial to infants. Given most parents are ignoring the AAP’s recommendation and 90 percent of children under age 2 watch video screens regularly, Christakis says tablets with interactive apps could be a better alternative.
Traditional media versus tablets
Past research studies by Christakis and his team have revealed infants are more engaged when playing with blocks than they are when watching a video, and engagement benefits their development. But scientists have not proven a child’s level of engagement when playing with an iPad. Still, Christakis says he thinks some interactive apps could be better for infants than traditional media.
“Traditional media has the distinctive feature of being passive,” Christakis says. “Children under the age of 2 don’t understand the content being shown on television, so the way you keep them engaged is with rapid sound and visuals. When a child interacts with passive media she never says or thinks ‘I did it!’ But she might if she were using a well-designed interactive app.”
Traditional toys versus apps
Apps may also have some advantages over more traditional toys, Christakis says.
Besides being interactive, Christakis says tablet apps can be reactive – responding to something the child does – and can be tailored to the child’s age or preferences. They are also progressive, meaning they can move the child along a continuum and advance in complexity. These qualities could provide benefits both passive media and traditional toys lack.
Still, Christakis says it is important to note iPads don’t have the three-dimensionality of traditional toys. Even if they play with an iPad, kids should also continue playing blocks or other toys they can manipulate in their hands, he says.
“There are building apps where you can assemble things, but I would hate for children to grow up in a world where that replaces actual blocks,” Christakis says.
Christakis is currently leading research studies to look for evidence of the benefits and risks of young children using tablet computers. In the meantime, he cautions parents there is still much we don’t know about the effects this technology could have on young children.
“Society is in the midst of a large, national, uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children,” he says. “Parents introduce new technologies early in their child’s life, when we know brain development is so critical, without any scientific evidence of how it affects them.”
Christakis recommends children play with tablets for no more than an hour each day. Even in the case of educational or pro-social apps, Christakis says it is important to have a balanced “media diet.”
“It is important to consider what a child would be doing if they were not playing on the iPad,” he says. “There are only so many hours in the day and so much to learn in those precious waking hours. Time spent with media means less time doing other things like reading or engaging in active play. Too much of a harmless, or even a good thing, can have unwanted effects,”
Additionally, Christakis warns children can become too attached to the interactivity of tablets.
“The delight a child gets from touching a screen and making something happen may help them learn and cause them to feel joy, but it’s also potentially addictive. If we don’t limit use of tablets we may begin to see compulsive use in our youngest children.”
- Dimitri Christakis TED Talk: Media and Children
- Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development
- The Christakis Lab
- Dimitri Christakis: Healthy Media Use
- Screen Time recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics
If you are a member of the media and would like to arrange an interview with Dr. Dimitri Christakis please contact Seattle Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.