Babies And iPads Might Not Be Such A Great Combination After All

Child development experts continue to debate the iPad's potential to help and to harm.

09/23/2015 01:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2015
Tetra Images/Noah Clayton via Getty Images

Many modern parents have a love-hate relationship with the iPad.  

The device can be great to keep a child occupied and some interactive games may carry educational benefits -- but what do we really know about how tablets affects babies' developing brains? 

The short answer is that we know very little. Digital devices have changed the parenting landscape so rapidly that the research has hardly been able to keep up, and comprehensive, science-based guidelines for children's media consumption have yet to be formulated.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics loosely recommends that screen time be avoided for children under age 2, a time when the brain is rapidly developing. "Young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens," the academy says

And yet, at least 38 percent of kids under 2 have used a mobile device.

Most recently, two leading developmental psychologists faced off on the subject, with U.K. early childhood expert Dr. Richard House arguing that iPads can be risky for babies' development and should be avoided at all costs. 

The use of these devices for young children is "unnecessary, inappropriate and harmful," House wrote in an op-ed in the British magazine Nursery World.

"We have no idea -- including, and even especially, neuroscientists! --  what the impact is of these technologies on the developing brain, and the brain IS still in rapid development in early childhood," House told The Huffington Post in an email. "There's also the risk of schooling babies in techno-addiction, and premature cognitive, unbalanced development."

Any educational value of interactive games played on the iPad can be better acquired through real-world interaction, he wrote. Some scientists have suggested that interacting heavily with technology could negatively affect a child's socio-emotional development, and House claims that screen time could also alter their sensory perception.

"The basic foundations of real-time human experience and perception have to be securely laid down first, before messing around with the young child's perceptual process with these virtual experiences," House said. "The delicate and highly complex development of the human senses can easily be disrupted and compromised by techno- rather than real-time and real-life experience."

On the other hand, University of London cognitive scientist Dr. Annette Karmiloff-Smith argued in her own Nursery World op-ed that tablets are healthy and educational for babies. Karmiloff-Smith's research recently found that tablets helped toddlers' number recognition, and she concluded that screen use seemed to pose no dangers even for newborns.

"Tablets should be part of a baby's world from birth," Karmiloff-Smith told TODAY

The bottom line? We just don't yet know what the short and long-term effects might be, so parents are well-advised to proceed with caution.

"We have no idea what these devices are doing to the younger brain, so perhaps we should be exercise a degree of caution when we sit the younger generation in front of iPhones and iPads," said Dr. Lee Hadlington, a cognitive psychologist at De Montfort University who researches the cognitive effects of technology use.  

Good or bad, we can all probably agree that babies playing with iPads are pretty darn cute:  

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