As the mother of a 7-month-old, I savor the moments when my son becomes engrossed in a toy. I usually use these moments when he cares little about my existence and is so focused on playing on his own to throw a load of laundry in the washer, clean up dirty dishes or just take a moment for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I spend the majority of my day as a stay-at-home -mom playing with him and entertaining him, because I know human interaction is the best way for babies and young children to learn.
However, in today’s increasingly digital world, parents are confronted with new baby gear and toys that incorporate the latest technology (and lead to less parent interaction).
Case in point is Fischer-Price’s Newborn-to-Toddler Apptivity Seat, which was released in 2013. The seat is designed to grow with your child, from birth up to 40 pounds. The seat reclines to three different positions and includes dangling toys for baby to play with, but these are the uncontroversial features of the seat.
What has set off a firestorm of criticism is the built-in iPad holder. Parents can insert and lock in their iPad, allowing the baby to view apps from Fischer-Price or other downloaded apps.
Locked and loaded
According to Fischer-Price, the apps the company offers free for download feature “soft, soothing sounds and nature scenes, black-and-white images and high-contrast patterns that help develop eye-tracking skills.”
Fischer-Price also offers other age-appropriate apps for older babies and toddlers that introduce letters, numbers and more.
Child developmental experts argue that the Apptivity Seat encourages parents to leave babies alone for extended periods of time to stare at the iPad screen — an unhealthy practice as noted by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in its November 2011 policy statement “Media Use by Children Under Age Two.”
Screen exposure — whether it be on an iPad, TV or other device — is not optimal for babies’ early brain development, according to the AAP. In 2011 the AAP Council on Communications noted that, based on research, screen time has no real benefit for infants and toddlers.
Some screen content can even be harmful to children. A study conducted in 2011 by Lillard and Peterson found that for pre-schoolers, watching just 20 minutes of a fast-paced cartoon show has been shown to have a negative impact on executive function skills, including attention, the ability to delay gratification, self-regulation and problem solving.
Last week, in response to the Apptivity Seat, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sent a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook urging Apple to end its licensing agreement with Fischer-Price and pledge not to license the iPad, iPhone or any other screen device to a product that “literally makes babies a captive audience.”
“Apptivity Seat is a greater threat to babies’ healthy development than any other screen-enabled device,” CCFC’s director, Dr. Susan Linn, said last week in a press release describing the letter sent to Apple.
Apple has yet to respond to the request.
Fischer-Price has noted on the product page that it recommends parents limit their child’s screen time and take regular breaks.
Evil or educational?
While strapping your baby down to a seat to stare at an iPad for hours — or even 15 minutes — doesn’t seem like the best parenting practice, there’s less conclusive debate around the value of allowing toddlers and older children to use iPads and other devices for play and learning. Studies have shown that for children over 3, some exposure to thoughtfully constructed media content can promote pro-social behaviors and contribute to learning, especially when a caregiver participates.
“For children 30 months and older, well-constructed media can be educational,” said Josh Golin, CCFC, associate director. “It’s important to remember, however, that ‘educational’ has essentially become a marketing term and that many games and apps that purport to be educational really aren’t.”
The organization also created a petition for parents to sign (13,000 have already done so) urging Fischer-Price to discontinue the bouncy seat.
So what should parents do if they want their child to benefit from technology and not be harmed by it? Here are a few tips:
• In accordance with AAP recommendations, don’t expose children under 2 years of age to tablets, mobile devices, TVs and other digital screens.
• After the age of 2, set limits on the amount of screen time children are allowed. Talk to your pediatrician about what is a reasonable amount of time based on your child’s age.
• Make sure that tablet time is replacing TV or other screen time, not displacing physical play, reading or other essential activities.
• Do your research on the types of apps and games you allow your child to use. Make sure they are age-appropriate and educational.
• Monitor your child while they’re using the device or, better yet, download apps and games that allow you to play with them.
• Have your children spend more time participating in unstructured, unplugged play, which allows their minds to grow, problem-solve, think innovatively and develop reasoning skills.
As with most new technologies, there are pros and cons with apps, phones and tablets. It’s likely that children can benefit from some exposure to digital devices as long as it is limited, the children are at a ready developmental age, and the content is appropriate. Just like most things when it comes to our children, parents need to stay involved and provide a healthy balance when it comes to high-tech and old-fashioned fun.