In a new study published last week in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that the use of electronic media of any type in children were associated with problems in family and personal well-being measures:



Television viewing on weekdays or weekends was more consistently associated with poorer outcomes than e-game/computer use. Across associations, the likelihood of adverse outcomes in children ranged from a 1.2- to 2.0-fold increase for emotional problems and poorer family functioning for each additional hour of television viewing or e-game/computer use depending on the outcome examined.


There has been a lot of attention lately to the effects electronic media — television, computers, video games, mobile devices, e-readers — have on the developing brains and bodies of young children.  Recent studies showing increases in childhood BMI and obesity, disturbances of sleep and sleep duration (concluding that “parents should consider avoiding long periods of daily television exposure among preschool and school-aged children”), and associations with ADHD, anxiety and depression, and poor school performance prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to advise parents to discourage electronic media use in children under 2 years old, take concrete steps to monitor their kids’ media time, and avoid having a TV in their child’s bedroom.

When it comes to the use of iPads, says Lisa Hack, the jury may still be out as to whether they are detrimental or not:

A pediatrician who is an expert on the effects of media on children—and who, not incidentally, helped write the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines on restricting media use by children aged younger than 2 years—says that 30 to 60 minutes per day spent using an iPad or similar device may be just fine for the age group.

A key factor, explains Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH, in an opinion piece in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, is whether the time is spent engaging in interactive play or spent passively viewing. Interacting with a game on an iPad or other tablet is very different from just sitting and viewing a screen, he says.


The degree of interactivity between the child and the device is what seems to be most important to Dr. Christakis:

1. Can the device/app respond differently to different actions of the child?

2. Can the device/app behave differently for each child or each time it is used?

3. Can the device/app move a child along a continuum that advances in complexity?

4. Does the device/app enable or facilitate adults and children playing together?

5. Is the device transported easily and available in different venues?


But there is one important thing that is missing from the flat screen of an iPad: the third dimension.  If we hope for our children to excel in mathematics and science, Allison Bond says we mustn’t ignore old-fashioned blocks and puzzles:

Spatial reasoning, which is the ability to visualize and manipulate objects as they would appear in space, is important in many math- and science-oriented careers, including engineering, [lead author Brian] Verdine and his co-authors write in Trends in Neuroscience and Education.

Playing with blocks, shapes and other toys does more than just get kids used to looking at and manipulating these objects. When parents join in, the dialogue they provide during playtime can also provide an opportunity to learn spatial skills.

For example, comparing the size, color and position of objects teaches children how to make comparisons.


Bond also says that traditional toys provide opportunities for interactivity that electronic screens don’t:

“When a parent is directing the play and narrating, that kind of conversation is such good learning for children. Parents should be like sportscasters and keep a running commentary on what’s going on,” said Marsha Gerdes, a psychologist at The Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the review.

Real-world play can also teach social skills, Verdine points out.

“One reason these old-fashioned toys provide a lot of benefits is that they involve other play partners or adults in some way,” he said.

“Parents provide a lot of additional language input, and they can respond to children in ways that electronic toys really aren’t able to do at this point in time,” Verdine said.