While tablets seem to be popular with very young children, some pediatricians and other health experts are expressing concerns that these devices may be interfering with early childhood development and may even lead to some children developing attention problems. Of course, the research on all of this is still mostly incomplete because the iPad and other popular devices have not been out long enough to determine what the long-term effects of usage among children really are.
Experts also point out that there is no evidence that the devices that some parents believe are educational actually offer any educational or developmental benefits for babies and toddlers. At the same time, they think all this extra screen time may take away from activities that do promote brain development.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, admits that, since the iPad and similar devices have only been on the market for a little over three years, tablet-related research is still in its infancy.
Christakis also notes that educational games and apps may have some value if they engage a child and prompt them to interact with the device, but also cautioned that if all children do is watch videos on their tablets, then it’s just like watching TV.
He also cautions that parents need to make sure that tablet time is not replacing more important activities such as sleeping, reading or interacting with adults.
"The single most important thing for children is time with parents and caregivers," he says. "Nothing is more important in terms of social development. If time with the tablet comes at the expense of that, that’s not good."
Dr. Rahil Briggs, a pediatric psychologist at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, believes tablet usage needs to be limited for the youngest of children, because too much screen time can slow language development. For older children, Briggs says too much tablet use can slow social development.
But the jury is still out on the positive and negative influence of tablet usage, and some experts believe that the good doctors are wrong.
Jill Buban, dean of the School of Education at Post University in Waterbury Conn., says the more children understand about technology before they start school, the more comfortable they’ll feel when they step into a classroom for the very first time. She does think that parents need to monitor and limit the amount of time their children spending using these devices, though.
"There’s so much media out there and so much marketing," she says. "It’s all about smart choices and research, whether it’s an app on a tablet or a TV show."
Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, says parents should be wary of any TV show or app that touts educational benefits for babies or toddlers because the research on that topic just isn't there to support it.
"Babies and young children are spending huge amounts of time with screen media when really what they need is hands-on creative play, active time and face-to face time with the people that love them," Linn said.
Linn’s group is best known for taking on the educational claims made by the “Baby Einstein” videos that eventually led to consumer refunds. They are currently urging the Federal Trade Commission to examine the marketing practices of certain apps and games geared toward babies.
"The best toys are the ones that just lie there until the child transforms them," Linn said pointing to blocks and stuffed animals as examples. "If all children do is push a button, that’s not the kind of play that promotes learning."