Screens OK for babies after all? Doc says so, but I’m worried

Dimitri Christakis (seattlechildrens.org)
Dimitri Christakis
(seattlechildrens.org)

It’s the first nice Friday in about five months on the East Coast, and I just walked across a busy street and passed a mom pushing her 2 or 3 year old in a stroller, the child playing with the mom’s iPhone all the way. At least they were crossing in the crosswalk. But I’m concerned that it’s more dangerous for the kid to be playing with mom’s phone than crossing a busy street.

There are plenty of experts who say kids under 2 should never look at computer screens of any kind, and slightly older kids really shouldn’t either.

Apparently, one of the world’s leading kid doctors no longer feels this way, however. I’m a bit in shock. But see this great story by friend JoNel Aleccia, who recently wrote about Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, the Seattle pediatrician who took down Baby Einstein. Christakis, a screen skeptic, has softened his no-screen stance, updating it for the world of tablet computers. Young kids may actually benefit from 30-60 minutes of screen play with appropriate apps like YouTube per day, he says now. Going on channels that offer things like “great kids learning songs” can be beneficial for their learning.

Huh?

I’ve read hundreds of JoNel’s stories and she’s never wrong, so this represents a real, dramatic shift.

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It’s notoriously hard to study genuine harm to children from technology, because conducting a scientifically-valid study would result in hurting children, so we can’t do that. So off the bat, there is a dearth of conclusive studies showing screens hurt kids, even though there have been plenty of reputable assertions that TV and computers can slow kids speech development, hamper their ability to focus, and so on. Christakis is in the middle of some long-term studies, but he apparently feels good enough about the research so far to make this assertion, according to JoNel:

Interactive iPad and device apps that engage a baby may be as mentally stimulating as old-fashioned toys such as blocks or even a See ‘N’ Say, which allows kids to develop a sense of accomplishment by matching animal images and sounds.

They’re all very different than passive television viewing, which is known to have detrimental effects on cognition, or videos or DVDs aimed at babies, which can be overstimulating and potentially harmful, Christakis said.

Parents everywhere, many who have given up on the idea of keeping their kids away from the hypnotic effect of screens, rejoiced. I’m concerned. I know parents sometimes just need a break from childcare to be able to get other things done, but rather than putting them in front of a screen, why not try a healthier alternative like a baby swing (find out how to choose the baby swing chair here) for those who are very young, or creating a safe enclosure full of toys for older ones.

Naturally, I have no data to challenge the doctor’s assertions. And in fact, I’m sure he’s right: there’s no harm from a little iPad use here or there. As every parent knows, sometimes, you just get through the day however you can. But I’m worried because I don’t think 1 in 100 parents who let their kids use their screens do so in highly structured, carefully controlled situations. The kids take the phones or tablets and don’t give them back. I saw data recently indicating one in 5 fifth graders has their own cell phone! But it starts early.

Perhaps tablet use doesn’t stunt speech growth the way excessive TV watching does, because one is active and the other is passive. Certainly believable. But I’m concerned about a host of other bad things happening to toddler brains while looking at screens. What about a child’s development of a sense of object permanence, for example? With screens, things appear and disappear like magic, not like the real world. Might screens interfere with this? I hope we don’t find out the hard way.

Sure, there’s no such thing as a rule without exceptions, so do what you have to do. (iPhones come in very handy in the bathroom, for example.) But mom and dad, I’d look both ways….several times…before crossing that street. And I wouldn’t do it outside on a nice day.

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About Bob Sullivan 1381 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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