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Playing With Tablets 'Closer to Blocks Than TV'

It's the nagging question all parents have asked themselves since the dawn of television: "Is technology scrambling my baby's brain?"

Only these days, the TV is far from the only screen in the house. Research on the subject is still in its final stages, but according to one child-health expert in Seattle, it looks like it's the content -- and the way the child interacts with it -- that makes the biggest difference.

Ben Popper, a father and a writer for, was worried about the possibility of negative cognitive effects of screen time on his newborn son. He was reluctant to give up using his iPad and iPhone around his infant but was willing to do it if letting him use them was, in fact, harming his child's development.

However, a few researchers have reassured Popper that the key is how the child interacts with the technology, not the technology's mere presence in the home.

I called Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute. “Screens are purely a delivery mechanism. What parents should be focused on is the content,” he told me. A blanket ban on screens, he argued, doesn’t make sense. “I’m a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, but I have to say, their statement about the effects of electronic media is clearly out of date.”

What matters, says Christakis, is the difference between passive and active consumption. In a study he conducted, two groups of kids played with blocks and watched TV. The group who spent their time engaged in active play scored significantly better on subsequent language acquisition tests. Christakis is now replicating this study comparing the effect of television to interactive iPad games. The research isn’t finished yet, but Christakis says, “I suspect the effect of the iPad on the brain will be much closer to the blocks than the TV.”

Heather Kirkorian, an assistant professor in developmental psychology at the University of Wisconsin, came to a similar conclusion. She taught two groups of children new words: one group just watched a video, the other had to touch a screen to produce an outcome. “For kids under 30 months old, they learned more when there was an interactive component. And so I think that shows the potential touchscreen devices might have as educational tools, especially when compared to television.”

In a nutshell: Prioritize access to high-quality content with a genuine educational bent, and you can rest easy that your children's brains will not be served with a side of bacon.