The Truth About Tablets and Toddlers

Infants need a lot of care, from feeding and bathing to countless diaper changes. But do babies need tablets? Manufacturers have been marketing “Baby’s First Tablet” to consumers, creating a cultural phenomenon known as “iPad Babies.” Studies have recently come out about how screen time might effect young children. 

The dangers in offering tablets to babies and toddlers

According to a recent study from the National University of Singapore, screen time harms the development of children’s brains under the age of two, leading to a decrease in high order cognitive skills like decision making, thinking and creativity. This includes tablets, phones and televisions.

The World Health Organization has also noted that increased sedentary screen time leads to obesity, which has been linked to countless diseases. It has also been associated with delayed language and social skills.

“It can still be hard for infants to learn from screen media because of the video deficit effect,” said Dr. Tiffany Munzer, Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. “They have trouble translating what they see on a screen to real-life before they are 18 months of age. So the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends trying to limit time with screens before this age for this science-based reason.”

When to introduce screens and devices

Munzer noted that as children age, they may benefit from tablet usage as it relates to FaceTime or Skype and talking with relatives, which could give them an opportunity to interact with family members.

“Starting around 18-24 months of age, young children start to learn more from tablets and screen devices, but still need help from their caregivers or parents to understand what is on the screen,” she said. 

“Infants and toddlers benefit most from interactions with their loved ones, time for free exploration, movement, play and reading,” Munzer said. “When digital media are used excessively, it can run the risk of displacing these important developmental activities and result in less optimal cognitive, language, and social development.”

Busy parents need a break

Let’s face it. Parenting littles can be exhausting. Munzer understands why tired and busy parents may choose to use tablets to offer a distraction for their children. 

“These findings do need to be interpreted in the context of reality,” she said. “ Parents are busy, and so watching educational media short times during the day is likely not going to adversely impact infant or toddler development. Things parents can consider might include watching together with a young toddler or viewing educational content such as that found on PBS. Not all media are created equally and the older children are, the more they are able to glean from digital media, so quality of content becomes really important starting in the toddler and preschool years.”

Alternatives to screens

“Our societal supports for parents and children in the United States are really suboptimal, and so families need to get creative with how to do it all,” Munzer said. “The reality is that parents may need to occupy children, especially when they are getting work done, or parents themselves need to take a much-deserved break. Digital media may be one solution to helping parents in these ways, but it unfortunately is not a perfect solution.”

Munzer has also seen parents use screens to try to calm a fussy child.

“They may have a really fussy infant or toddler who might need help soothing, and so that could be one reason why the parent offers a device. These infants and toddlers really can be tricky to parent. So for parents of these infants and toddlers especially, it’s important to ensure they have other tools they might need to regulate their own emotions,” Munzer said.

Dr. Tiffany Munzer, developmental behavioral pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Some of those tools may include social support, adequate sleep, or speaking with a parenting coach.

While many parents hope that early tablet usage will provide an educational advantage, this has not proven to be the case.

“Prior work has found that infant DVDs were marketed toward families as educational when they had less educational potential, and so well meaning families were purchasing these DVDs with the impression that they would be helpful,” Munzer said.

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