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Your iPad Is a Really Bad Babysitter

My 8-year-old daughter and I cruised through two chapter books before she even considered asking for a screen of some sort while en route from Boston to Los Angeles following the holidays. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bragging. Although I fly often, I really don’t like it, and the thought of plugging my kids in from coast-to-coast is appealing. One less worry, or something like that.

And planes are really, really boring. But I’ve taught them well, and they’ve taken my lessons on screen time to heart. Sigh. So screen time is time limited, as it should be.

The truth is that flying is easier now that my kids are a little older. We color. We read. We make up silly stories. We try to figure out where we are by looking out the window. It’s still long and boring, but they know the drill. Board the plane, sit for six hours, land in Boston. It’s doable.

RELATED: 5 Types of Parents You Meet on a Plane

It felt less doable when they were toddlers, though somehow we managed to just get through it. I will never forget the day the mom on the back of the plane introduced me to the cake maker game on the iPhone. Add ingredients, mix, bake, decorate and “eat” your own cake.

Hooray for toddler distractions!

Here’s the catch: sometimes distractions are necessary. A long flight involving ear pain and sitting through endless turbulence counts. So do excessive waits at the pediatrician’s office and never-ending car rides. But not every wait or every moment of boredom or every hint of a temper-tantrum qualifies as an appropriate time to hand over your iPad to placate your toddler.

Toddler distraction by way of tablets seems to be the new norm in the world of parenting, and this can negatively impact child development.

According to the latest Neilsen survey, 70 percent of tablet-owning households admit that children under the age of 12 use the device. Seventy-seven percent of those kids are using the tablets to play downloaded games, where only 57 percent are using them for educational purposes. Forty-one percent use them to remain entertained while at a restaurant or during an event, and only 15 percent use them to communicate with friends or family.

Week after week, I see toddlers using iPads and iPhones during Sunday mass. It’s sad, really. If we can’t even unplug our children to come together as a community for one hour each week, how can we possibly teach them to regulate their emotions as they grow?

Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine warn that tablet use for toddlers can negatively impact social and emotional development. In a study published in "Pediatrics," the researchers expressed concern that technology use could interfere with the development of empathy and problem-solving skills.

Before you chalk this latest study up to yet another call for “everything in moderation,” ask yourself this: have you ever kept a chart to log exactly how many minutes your toddler spends using a tablet or handheld device? Have you tracked the moments that cause you to hand over the technology? You might find that the minutes add up quickly. It’s easy to lose track of time spent glued to a screen.

Still not convinced? Check out these five reasons to stop relying on screens for distraction:

1. Empathy doesn’t exist on a screen

Children learn how to relate with others by interacting with others. Parent and sibling relationships provide lessons in empathy, kindness and caring for others. There isn’t an app on the market that can make up for the lessons learned when children play and interact with their family members.

2. The instant gratification factor

You can’t teach patience by handing over a fun game the moment life gets boring. Toddlers are experts when it comes to making something out of nothing. Go ahead, bring home a new toy and a cardboard box tomorrow. I think you’ll find that the box is more entertaining.

Life isn’t always fun, but we can create our own fun to pass the time. That’s an important lesson for young children. Instant gratification is a downward spiral. Left unchecked, it will lead to increased tantrums and frustration.

Too much screen time can lead to headaches, fatigue, eye-strain, anxiety and even symptoms of depression. Is that what we want for our children?

3. Social skills require socializing

It’s no big secret that toddlers are big on parallel play, but they learn from one another even when they are playing next to one another. Have you ever watched two toddlers playing side-by-side? They peek over at each other to see what the other is up to. They trade toys and tools back and forth. Sometimes they cry when they regret a trade.

These are the seeds that will emerge into advanced social skills as kids grow. They need interaction with other humans to develop their social interaction skills.

4. Free play is the best teaching tool around

Playing a game on a device does not fall under the heading of “free play.” Believe it or not, I’ve heard arguments that it does countless times. The game sets the rules, provides the structure and determines whether you win or lose. There’s no freedom in that.

Free play is the best way for children to learn. Through play, children learn to relate to others, problem-solve and cope with disappointment. They also work on language development, fine and gross motor skills and early literacy and mathematical skills.

5. Brain drain is real

You know that feeling you get when you’ve been glued to your screen for way too long and you just want to collapse? Kids get that, too. The problem is that they don’t know how to cope or how to self-regulate, so they keep on playing until they scream and cry and throw a massive tantrum.

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Too much screen time can lead to headaches, fatigue, eye-strain, anxiety and even symptoms of depression. Is that what we want for our children?

Just say no to tablets for toddlers and let board books, free play and cuddle time lead the way to a healthier and happier childhood.

Image via Twenty20/indelibleimage

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