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home : columns : dr. k June 28, 2016

   
7/8/2014 1:57:00 PM
Don't use tablets as substitute for spending time with kids

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have an 18-month-old who loves to play on my iPad. I think it's fine; my wife doesn't. What are your thoughts?

DEAR READER: The only thing I can say for sure is that I'd rather have your toddler play with your iPad than with mine.

Seriously, you've asked an important question, because we see it everywhere: babies and toddlers playing with their parents' tablets or smartphones. Parents use these devices to entertain their children, and in the hope of helping them to learn.

Is this a good or a bad thing? My pediatrician colleagues tell me they're not sure, but here's what they think:

Early childhood is a time of rapid brain development. 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. Their reasoning is that active, exploratory play, along with interaction with nurturing adults, is best for babies and toddlers. When a child 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, which are crucial for both academic and social success. They include planning, negotiating, trouble-shooting and delaying gratification.

Some experts argue that iPads and similar devices are different than television. True, like TV, playing with smartphones or tablets involves watching things on a screen. However, smartphones and tablets also are interactive; they are not passive experiences. And the smartphones or tablets can adjust to a child's learning level. They also can be used with another person, like a parent, as part of play.

Studies are underway to see how these devices affect babies and young children, but it will be years before we have any definitive results. In the meantime, here is some advice based on what we know so far:

-- Don't use these devices to make your child smarter. Old-fashioned play with blocks or dolls, listening to stories or playing at the park will do more for your child's development than a tablet or smartphone.

-- Limit use of these devices to under an hour a day, especially for young children.

-- Choose apps carefully. The Common Sense Media website (www.commonsensemedia.org) has lots of useful information and reviews.

-- Use the devices as part of your interactions with your child. Don't simply leave the devices for your children to entertain themselves while you're doing something else.

I wonder if this advice isn't a bit too conservative. My instinct is that the interactivity of smartphones and tablets makes them devices that help toddlers solve puzzles. I'll bet that two hours playing with one of these devices is better for brain development than two hours spent watching TV -- but not better than two hours playing with a parent.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)


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