Parenting In The Age Of Apps: Is That iPad Help Or Harm?

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When it comes to media, parents all want to know: How much is too much for my child?

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician, professor and father of two, has spent a lot of time thinking about the effects of media on young children. Christakis tells NPR's Arun Rath that not all TV is bad.

Some children's programs are educational and engaging, he says. But if a TV show is overstimulating, it can lead to developmental problems.

"The medium can be too fast, it's surreally paced," he says, "and that can over-stimulate and ultimately damage young brains."

Some of the evidence for this over-stimulation effect comes from studying mice.

"It's funny, there's only so much you can do with live infants," Christakis says. "So we've developed a mouse model of over-stimulation."

Using a kind of 'mouse TV' in the lab, researchers have found that mice that watch a lot of television early in their development have problems later in life. They are hyperactive and take lots of risks that normal mice don't — for instance, sitting unprotected in an open field, which is a big mistake for a small animal with lots of natural predators.

Enter The iPad

The question of how much screen time is good for kids has only gotten more complicated with the arrival of interactive devices like smartphones and tablets, Christakis says.

"We have to take a step back and remind ourselves that iPads are only 4 years old. And most of us can't even conceive of a world that existed before iPads; they feel like they've been here forever."

Because tablet technology is so new, pediatric researchers don't have a lot of data on how touchscreen devices affect children.

"Unfortunately, the pace of research is much, much slower than the pace of technological advances," Christakis says.

But pediatricians are looking closely at interactive media's effect on children. Relying on admittedly limited evidence and a strong theoretical framework, Christakis is comfortable making a recommendation to parents.

"Judicious use of these touchscreen technologies is fine and may even be beneficial," he says.

"One thing children of all ages never say or never even think when they interact with passive media is, 'I did it,'" he says. "Because of course, you don't do anything when you watch a screen. But you do do things when you interact with a touchscreen device."

This kind of interactive play is essential to learning and vital for brain development, he says.

All Things In Moderation

Of course all screen time, interactive or not, comes at the expense of some other activity, whether it's playing with other children or spending time with a parent.

With tablet technology, screen time doesn't necessarily mean time spent alone. Why not integrate the devices into family time?

"There's no reason whatsoever that a caregiver can't use an app with their child," he says. "It's a great opportunity for what we call 'joint attention' — the interactions between a child and a caregiver, the back-and-forth, which is critical not just to language development, but brain development."

Sound familiar? It should. This, says Christakis, isn't much different from sitting down and reading a book with your child.

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