Recent reports and forum letters question the promotion of an ipad baby seat (e.g., “Infant iPad seats raise concerns about screen time for babies“, Washington Post, 11 Dec 2013; “Some unanswered questions“, Straits Times, 17 Dec 2013; see Psychology Today for some answers). These highlight a growing concern about using ipad games and youtube video programming as babysitters.
Research findings are clear about the benefits of real human interactions for language development. As this TED talk demonstrates, learning from a human being is different from listening to the same words overheard from an audio-video source, such as TV (here’s the science behind it all).
Numerous studies show that precocious language development in infancy is associated with parents who speak often to their babies. In contrast, there appears to be only moderate benefits for language acquisition from watching an educational programme like Dora the explorer. In fact, TV is strongly discouraged for toddlers and infants (AAP).
It has been suggested that longterm exposure to TV programming at an early age is associated with shorter attention spans (“Limit your child’s TV time“, Straits Times, 29 Dec 2013; NY Times, 9 May 2011). But that evidence is correlational in nature. Children who have shorter attention spans tend to watch more television. It may not be the case that TV shortens their attention span. Instead, attention deficits are recognised to have other causes (The US CDC has this useful factsheet).
Social interactions are also opportunities for learning. Which is what makes play an important element for children’s learning, as this commentary in The Independent (12 Jan 2014), “Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less” explains. And time spent watching TV is not time spent playing.
On the other hand, playing together with young children on the iPad provides similar benefits to that gained with a picture book, as others have suggested (“Parenting in the age of apps: Is that iPad help or harm?“). iPads aren’t all that bad as long as they’re not the babysitter.