Toddlers with iPads

Darren Murtha Design’s Shape Builder was one of five iPad apps recommended to parents in a New York Times column.

A piece last week in the Wall Street Journal questioned whether there might be effects on brain development when really young kids play with iPads and similar devices. The answer is simply:  nobody knows. The article points out that

…In many ways, the average toddler using an iPad is a guinea pig. While the iPad went on sale two years ago, rigorous, scientific studies of how such a device affects the development of young children typically take three to five years.” 

and it quotes a couple of experts:

“‘There is ‘little research on the impact of technology like this on kids,’ says Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital….”

 “’Unfortunately a lot of the real-life experimentation is going to be done by parents who now have young kids,’ says Glenda Revelle, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Arkansas.”

The article was written by Ben Worthen, a father who was concerned about the trance-like state he and his wife observed in their 4-year-old son playing with an iPad. Worthen notes that it soon became a battle every night when his son was asked to turn off the iPad.

“’It gives him a dopamine squirt,’” says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital in Boston, referring to the brain chemical often associated with pleasure. Many apps for kids are designed to stimulate dopamine releases—hence encouraging a child to keep playing—by offering rewards or exciting visuals at unpredictable times.”

Some people say that after all the dopamine rewards from video games, it’s not as easy to pay attention to activities that don’t deliver regular bursts of dopamine. And while many parents are pleased with the way educational apps appear to help with early learning, they also speak of their kids’ immersion for hours at a time. When I think of toddlers, it’s hard to come up with any other activities that hold their attention for that length of time. Maybe the toddler brain isn’t designed to focus for so long on one thing at a time when they’re exploring the world around them?

A few small studies have shown gains in vocabulary in young kids who used educational apps. Some researchers think the iPad may not have the same neurological effects as video games and TV, which the American Academy of Pediatrics has cautioned can be harmful in very young children, whose brain development is at a critical stage in their first few years. But the technology is so new, there aren’t any such studies yet.

We don’t really know what effect major doses of screen time has on older kids, either, or on adults. Kids growing up today with so much fast-paced visual technology from such an early age may display differences in brain development in ways we haven’t uncovered yet. The issue is much broader and more complex than whether or not these young brains are experiencing seizures brought on by video action. There could well be subtle changes in brain function that wouldn’t register as seizures but that affect processing nonetheless. More on that in my next post.

In the meantime I encourage you to check out the article that started off the discussion, with accompanying video and audio reports.



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