NEW YORK — Tablet computers are so easy to use that even a 3-year-old can master them.
And that has some pediatricians and other health experts worried.
Since navigating a tablet generally doesn't require the ability to type or read, children as young as toddlers can quickly learn how to stream movies, scroll through family photos or play simple games.
That ease-of-use makes tablets —and smartphones— popular with busy parents who use them to pacify their kids during car rides, restaurant outings or while they're at home trying to get dinner on the table. And many feel a little less guilty about it if they think there's educational value to the apps and games their children use.
The devices are expected to rank among the top holiday gifts for children this year. Gadget makers such as Samsung have introduced tablets specifically designed for kids and many manufacturers of adult tablets now include parental controls. Those products are in addition to the slew of kiddie tablets produced by electronic toy makers such as LeapFrog, Vtech and Toys R Us.
But some experts note there's no evidence that screen time — whether from a TV or tablet — provides any educational or developmental benefits for babies and toddlers. Yet it takes away from activities that do promote brain development, such as non-electronic toys and adult interaction.
They also say that too much screen time has been linked to behavior problems and delayed social development in older children.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital, points out that iPads have only been on the market for a little over three years, which means tablet-related research is still in its infancy.
Christakis says educational games and apps have some value if they engage a child and prompt them to interact with the device, but cautioned that if all children do is watch videos on their tablets, then it's just like watching TV, which has a limited ability to engage a child.
He also notes that parents need be mindful of whether tablet time is replacing more important activities such as sleeping, reading or interacting with adults. He says that while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time a day for kids over the age of two, he thinks one hour is plenty.
"The single most important thing for children is time with parents and caregivers," he says. "Nothing is more important in terms of social development. If time with the tablet comes at the expense of that, that's not good."
Dr. Rahil Briggs, a pediatric psychologist at New York's Montefiore Medical Center, says tablet usage needs to be limited for the youngest of children, because too much screen time can slow language development. And since there's very little research out there so far, experts still don't know exactly how much is too much, she says.
For older children, Briggs says too much tablet use can slow social development. She notes that the solitary nature of the activity means that kids aren't using that time to learn how to make friends or pick up on social cues.
Some experts, however, believe tablets and smartphones possess unique educational benefits.
Jill Buban, dean of the School of Education at Post University in Waterbury Conn., says the more children absorb and understand technology before they start school, the more comfortable they'll feel when they enter a classroom for the first time.
But she says even the best educational apps must be monitored by parents and limited. She recommends no more than 30 minutes of tablet usage at a time in light of the short attention spans of most young kids.
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