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Are iPads okay for babies and toddlers?

baby with iPad.jpgWhen it comes to screen time for kids under the age of 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is pretty clear: just say no.

But recently, some are asking: are touchscreens different enough that we should rethink that advice--or at least tweak it?

The AAP has really good reasons for its recommendation. We know that what helps the development of babies and toddlers are interaction and play. By interacting with others they learn language, social skills and so much more; through play they strengthen their bodies and their minds. Screen time--at least traditional screen time--gets in the way of both interaction and play. 

The thing is, not all screens are so traditional anymore.

Dmitri Christakis, a pediatrician from Seattle who has done extensive research on the effects of media on children, just published an opinion piece in JAMA Pediatrics. The problem, he says, is that when the AAP started writing the policy statement (policy statements take a long time to write and revise and be approved), iPads hadn't been invented. 

In his piece, Christakis points out that iPads and other touchscreen devices are different from TV and DVD's (which is what the AAP was really writing about in the statement) in some important ways. They can respond to something a child does, and prompt reactions from the child. Those interactions can be tailored to a child's developmental level--and can change as a child demonstrates learning and understanding. Unlike traditional screens, you can pick it up, move it around and take it with you. IPads also be used with another person, which encourages adults to interact with the child--rather than sitting them in front of cartoons while they cook or talk on the phone or do whatever.

It will be years before we know the effects of iPads on babies and toddlers, so it's really important that we be careful and thoughtful as we think about using them. This is such a crucial time in a child's life; the ramifications of what a child does, or doesn't do, during those early years can last a lifetime. 

Nobody, including Christakis, is saying that kids should be playing with iPads all day. Christakis says that 30-60 minutes a day is likely okay, but admits that he doesn't really know. Clearly it's still best for small children to be playing with people and toys, listening to stories, swinging on swings, digging in sandboxes and otherwise exploring and enjoying the world.

But given that so many parents are already ignoring the no-screens-under-two recommendation, an iPad might be the better way to go--assuming that the app is interactive and age-appropriate, and assuming that caregivers are nearby and joining in.

Really, that's what it boils down to with everything: it's how you use it, and how it fits into a child's life, that matters.

We pediatricians aren't going to be able to give you advice about iPads based on studies for a while yet. But when we do, I bet that what we'll say will sound something like this: use it in a very limited way, choose apps carefully, and use it with your child. 

For reviews and information about apps and other media, check out the Common Sense Media website.

Later this week I'll have a post about the best things parents can do to help the development of their babies and toddlers, with advice from an occupational therapist (spoiler alert: there's no technology involved). Stay tuned!

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