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Will Smartphones And iPads Mush My Toddler's Brain?

<p> For real: Fisher-Price's Laugh & Learn Baby iCan Play Case protects an iPhone while baby plays with apps. </p>
Stan Honda
AFP/Getty Images

For real: Fisher-Price's Laugh & Learn Baby iCan Play Case protects an iPhone while baby plays with apps.

Parents of small children have long been told to avoid using the television as a babysitter. This week, the nation's leading group of pediatricians reiterated its stance against letting kids under 2 watch any TV at all.

But what about iPhones and iPads?

These days, it's pretty common to see Mom or Dad hand over a pricey smartphone to a cranky toddler to stave off a temper tantrum. One survey found that as many as 1 in 4 toddlers has used a smartphone. For many young kids, it's become the toy of choice.

I confess, I've given my iPhone to my 1 1/2-year-old in a pinch (he likes to browse my iTunes collection). But in general, I've tried to limit my son's exposure to our family's iPad and iPhones because of the American Academy of Pediatrics' long-standing advice to keep kids under 2 away from screens.

The AAP first issued that guidance in 1999. Now, "we have more science to back up the previous recommendation," says Dr. Ari Brown, the lead author of the AAP's revised guidelines on toddlers and TV. (Parents might recognize her as the author of the best-selling parenting guide Baby 411.)

Despite the many educational DVDs aimed at the under-2 crowd, the AAP says research doesn't support the notion that kids that young benefit from videos. Some studies suggest TV viewing may actually be harmful to those under 2 — even when the set is merely on in the background.

"The concern that we have is it's distracting to the parent, so the parent is talking less to the child, there's less parent-child conversation, which is important for language development," Brown tells Shots. "And it's also distracting for the child."

Distracted infants and toddlers are more likely to abandon an activity quickly. Experts worry about how that will affect children's ability to learn to organize information and make decisions "when they're not having the experience of being really focused on the activity that's at hand," says Brown.

A better use of time, says Brown: Let tots engage in free play, like stacking cups on the floor. That type of activity has been shown to boost baby's development.

So how does all this relate to smartphones and tablets?

The AAP's new policy doesn't address these devices — "we simply don't have the science right now to comment," Brown says.

But if you're merely pulling up an Elmo video on YouTube and handing your mobile device over, that viewing experience is just as passive as if your kid were watching TV, so the same concerns apply, says Brown.

What about all those peekaboo and storybook apps aimed specifically at the toddler set?

"When it comes to apps and interactive games," she says, "that is a completely different way of using your brain."

That's not official AAP policy, Brown stresses. But as a pediatrician, she says she could see how some apps might provide a limited, "virtual approximation of something a child might be doing with an object in their hand. They're figuring out cause and effect or sequencing or ordering."

"There might be a real educational use for those items on these screens," she says. "We just don't have any data to say one way or the other."

And if the same impulse that keeps so many of us bound to our digital devices also makes parents more likely to play an app with a child, so much the better, says Brown. "It might teach the parent and child how to share."

Just don't use that as an excuse to sneak in some rounds of Angry Birds under the guise of family bonding. The bottom line, says Brown, is that parents need to engage actively with their child — not with their devices. "When you are with your child," she says, "be there with them."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.