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Playing to Learn

The trouble with electronic toys

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January 13, 2016

This article originally appeared on CNN on January 13, 2016.

By Sarah C. Bauer

If as a parent, you are trying to spend more time with your family and play more with your children, then perhaps it is a good time to consider the kind of play and what type of toys will be the most beneficial for your child's development in the long run.

A recent study from Northern Arizona University found that electronic toys such as a baby laptop or cell phone do not promote language development in young children as well as books and traditional toys such as wooden puzzles, shape-sorters and blocks. As a developmental pediatrician, I am troubled -- but not surprised -- that electronic toys were associated with decreased quantity and quality of language between parents and children.

What we are measuring here is time and relationships; traditional books and toys can require more time and personal connection than electronic ones, including games and videos on smartphones and iPads.

It is much easier sometimes to allow children to entertain themselves with electronic toys than it is for us to directly interact by reading and playing with them. This becomes a problem when such technology-sitting is the rule rather than the exception.

How kids use technology

Another recent study from Ireland found that children as young as 2 are able to purposefully use touch-screen technology such as an iPad or other tablet. Dr. Deirdre Murray, the lead researcher of this study, states, "Interactive touch-screen applications offer a level of engagement not previously experienced with other forms of media and more akin to traditional play."

This mirrors what I see in the clinic where I work. Parents proudly show me how their toddlers are able to use a tablet to play games or watch a video on YouTube. An interactive screen or smart phone is like a cause and effect toy -- both for adults and children. You touch something and get instant feedback. This is why I think children can sit for hours playing on a screen, but have trouble paying attention in class.

While this study establishes that young children are able to use touch-screen technology well, it is different for children to be using a tablet interactively with a parent than playing games by themselves in isolation. Further studies are needed to establish how this dynamic would affect language development.

Parents often ask me if electronics, including smartphones and tablets, are good or bad for their children's development. Questions include whether a child should use the tablet at all and how much time is too much. As is the case with most parenting questions, the answer is not as simple as yes or no.

Language development is founded in our earliest social relationships. A baby's first smile acknowledges familiar faces, and parents are able to distinguish cries of hunger versus pain in a nonverbal infant. Early social and language development matters, because it is associated with reading skills and academic success.

So what happens when another entity enters relationships between parents and children, including the ever-present smartphone and tablet? I advise parents that it is not the technology that is the problem, but rather how much and how it is used.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that total screen time is limited to one to two hours per day and it is not recommended for children under age 2. Because children can watch videos and play video games on smartphones and tablets, these count as screen time, not just the television.

The AAP plans to update this policy in October 2016 to reflect the most updated technology that is available as well as the most recent research about media use.

For some young children, technology might be helpful for communication and motivation, but it is important to use it thoughtfully, with intention, and in small increments of time.

What parents can do

Reading with children from infancy promotes early language development, which in turn promotes early literacy. These skills are essential for kindergarten entry and long-term success throughout the lifespan.

For parents and caregivers, media can also be a positive mode of social connectedness with their children. The Daily Vroom is a new app for parents to assist in facilitating early development using everyday items and activities. It is personalized to the age and gender of each child and takes advantage of everyday activities that parents and children do together, such as mealtimes, dressing and bedtime. I recently started talking with families about this app, especially if they are looking for ideas on how to play and facilitate development in their children.

In my clinics, I see children who are learning differently than expected and may have developmental differences such as autism and communication disorders. Technology can also be a way to understand how children who struggle to communicate see the world, but cannot always tell us. Smart phones and tablets can have a different level of importance for communication, including pictures that depict wants and needs, as well as schedules for various daily activities. Autism Speaks has compiled a list of known apps as well as the evidence supporting their use.

Children may have difficulty transitioning from the tablet to another activity, and its removal can precipitate a tantrum or meltdown. It can be difficult to recover from these tantrums, and continuing use sometimes helps a parent just get through the day.

Moderation and mindfulness of how children use technology is imperative. Relationships establish the foundation of children's development. Technology can connect us, but it can also isolate us.

- Dr. Sarah C. Bauer is a developmental pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago and assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. She is a fellow in The OpEd Project's NU Public Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Opinion