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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

iPad Use and Babies: Throwing a Wrench in the Works

I think we all uttered a collective scream as one when news of this particular Fisher Price toy came to our attention this holiday season past:

It’s called the Newborn-to-Toddler Apptivity Seat and out of curiosity I wondered if it was still on the market.  Indeed it is, and the comments on Amazon make for a day’s worth of reading right there.  Naturally the notion of strapping your child into a device and forcing them to look at a screen ala Clockwork Orange (admittedly a baby in a bowler would be ADORABLE!) isn’t the most soothing thought in the world.

What reminded me of the existence of this terribly toy-related miscalculation?  Nothing more than the recent slate of articles discussing small children and screen time.  Parents these days have to take a stand on what they believe is an appropriate amount of screen time with any kiddo.  The facts aren’t entirely in on the matter, but that’s not stopping anyone from voicing an opinion.

Undoubtedly the most trustworthy is probably going to be the American Academy of Pediatrics, in large part because they haven’t an agenda in mind.  Their piece on Media and Children states without equivocation, “Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”  Seems pretty cut and dried.

But then there goes the Today Show throwing a wrench in the works.  Surprise: Doc who devised screen time limits says iPads may be okay for babies.  Come again?  According to Today the statement comes from Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, who co-authored the American Academy of Pediatrics 2011 guidelines that frown on media use by kids younger than 2.  His defense?  He wrote the guidelines before iPads got big.  He argues that iPads, because they are interactive (unlike television) are a far better use of a baby’s time than TV or other passive activities.  All well and good, but the piece does also mention that we don’t actually know how they affect developing brains at this time.

What I don’t quite get is what Dr. Christakis is attempting to do here.  Let’s look at it logically.  If he is right, and babies can benefit from iPads, does that outweigh the danger of giving some parents all clear so that they can ignore their kiddos for long swaths of time?  At one point in the piece he says, “This is not just to allow their child to play willy-nilly for hours and hours.”  So the best case scenario is that everyone with a baby and an iPad follows his advice, the babies play with iPads and get marginally (and there is zippo evidence of this, I might note) smarter, and everyone’s happy.  The worst case scenario?  That people strap their babies into these devices for hours at a time, it has no benefits, and is indeed detrimental to the developing brains.  Basically, I just want to know if he thinks this is worth the risk.  Honestly, is it the worst thing in the world to advise parents not to let their kids do iPads before the age of two?  What problem is Dr. Christakis solving here?

Back in August the Washington Post wrote about the fact that toy companies looking to promote the educational benefits of apps found themselves up a tree without any evidence on hand.  So who do you trust in these cases?

Simply thinking aloud.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Opinions are like bellybuttons, everyone has them. Who knows? Live interaction is always best. We survived for many, many, many moons without devices. I’m already frustrated by those who cannot walk anywhere without a device. People have lost spatial etiquette, stand there blocking the streets, subways, stairs, etc. all spaced out with that onscreen glowy haze. Talk so loud like I really care to know their personal business. These devices triangulate my relationships eg when someone calls while friend and I are dining out. People are *addicted*. Why do that to little babies, toddlers? Why not hand them a bottle of scotch instead? As the wise say: everything in moderation. ps I dislike when kids wear sunglasses so the parents can look cool. Let them see ALL the colors.

  2. Elizabeth Burns says:

    to be very, very cynical: sounds like more “whatever you do, moms (and it’s typically moms), you’re doing it wrong.”

    with a side of “just what do they think people were doing with babies 50, 100, 150, 250″ years ago. I think an iPad is better than laudanum, and if it means you can take a shower, so be it.

  3. Here’s what I don’t get: iPads are interactive if you’re capable of manipulating them, right? Otherwise how else would they be different from, say, the now-debunked Baby Einstein vids? They’re just more tv screens if you plunk them in front of a baby that has next-to-no motor control and can’t get a finger to the screen, right? My kid’s still figuring out analog buttons not because he doesn’t sort of get cause and effect but because at 9 months he still can’t consistently get a finger on a button when he wants to. Am I missing something?

  4. Thais Rousseau says:

    If there is an appropriate use of screens for children under two the Apptivity seat is the farthest thing from it and the screen time debate is an important one. On the other hand, many young children communicate regularly with their grandparents via Skype or Face Time. That is still a screen but those involved find it to be a highly meaningful, enriching experience. Children with disabilities learn to use iPads as a method of communication. The debate is more nuanced than screen time vs. no screen time.

  5. Pardon the NSFW language, but this New Yorker piece from earlier this week seems apropos:

    I am a huge lover of devices, but cannot see the advantage of over-exposure to them vs. the world for the toddler set. I’m sure science will tell us the impact later on… yet I’m also sure that there’s a tide here that fighting against probably won’t yield results. Which leads to the question of what next? Change the developing brain (as no doubt reading vs. oral storytelling did) and…???? Getting ahead of that curve rather than spending the next decade determining if it’s a bad trend would be where my attention would go, were I in the field.

  6. I think it mostly has to do with the personal preferences of the parent. It seems pretty safe to assume that early exposure to devices will make children more dependent on devices and make them more likely to be avid future gadget-buyers (good for that industry), but it doesn’t seem clear whether those habits have negative cognitive effects. I know lots of successful adults who like being plugged in at all times. I don’t know whether it hurts their brains. All I know is that they aren’t my favorite people, professional success aside. And I would want my children to be my favorite type of people, which means less screen time. But I can see how parents who love and enjoy (and/or make lots of money off of) gadgets couldn’t reasonably tell their kids it’s bad for them.

  7. OK. Where did you find that photo of the Mom and baby in bowlers? Why not just put the babies outside under a shady bush? That will give them something to watch and to interact with. And if they swallow a few bugs, you won’t have to feed them. Save a lot of money that way.

  8. I think the “Apptivity Seat” is a particularly bad idea for infants, but I also think it would be unfair to conclude that ePicturebooks aimed at toddlers are all best avoided by using the “screen time” argument. In the final analysis, it’s not about the medium, it’s about whether or not the parent participates in reading the book to the infant — the very best scenario whether the story is on a screen or printed on paper.

  9. I expect there will be a lot of blaming parents in the future about how mobile tech gets used. That will be sad and wrong because I think it is the medium. Screen time, including touch screens, are profoundly passive. The human is not in charge. The human is constantly under the control of the devices’ limits, architecture and enticements and they are built, absolutely, for solitary use. This is their nature and they are changing our brains. The first mistake is to think that we are in control.