But phones and tablets are also interactive. In the past few months, I’ve downloaded a handful of apps that Khalil has learned to control by himself. His favorite is AlphaBaby, an iOS app that flashes letters and numbers each time he touches the screen. The objects can be moved and resized, and each time Khalil touches one, the iPad reads out the letter, number, or shape name. The app even let my wife and I record ourselves reading these labels—when Khalil touches a triangle, it’s my voice that screams, “Triangle!”
When I described AlphaBaby to Christakis, he thought it sounded pretty good. “From a theoretical standpoint, it’s not very new,” he says. “It sounds like one of those old toys where you’d point a dial to a pig, and if you pulled a string, it would make a pig sounds.” Christakis liked that the app moved at the kid’s pace, and it gave the child feedback based on his actions. He did note that by touching a screen, rather than a three-dimensional object, my son wasn’t engaging his spatial abilities, but that wasn’t a big deal as long as he had other opportunities to play with real-world stuff. “I do have a sense that this kind of app is not harmful, and it may well even be beneficial, especially if the child is using it with a parent,” he says.
Again, though, Christakis is concerned with defining the limits on these technologies: “In the extreme—and I hear about these cases in my clinic, kids who spend five hours, seven hours a day with the iPad—these devices begin to displace other kinds of activities that are important for cognitive and social development.”
At first, the idea that there are some children spending most of their waking hours with the iPad sounded ridiculous to me. But then I caught myself: I spend more than half my day at some kind of screen, and when I’m away from one—when I haven’t checked my e-mail or Twitter in a while—I yearn for a fix. So why am I surprised that children are getting similarly hooked? While researchers who study kids and media say some exposure to screens isn’t bad, they’re right to point out that few American adults or babies are getting just some exposure. According to most surveys, Americans of every age group keep spending more and more time watching and interacting with electronic screens.
This explains why doctors prefer a blanket rule: We all have difficulty regulating our attraction to electronics, so opening the door for a little bit of television or gadget time for your baby might be seen as an invitation to go hog-wild. Yes, some TV won’t hurt your toddler, and, yes, playing a game like AlphaBaby might even help him. Just remember that keeping your finger on the off button isn’t as easy as it sounds. The more your kid watches, the more he’ll want to watch.