A nine-month old using an iPad? Nowadays, this image is much less rare than many people think. Ten percent of children under the age of one have handled an iPad, an iPod, or a similar electronic device. In fact, parents now have hundreds of apps aimed at infants and toddlers at their fingertips, and most of these baby-focused apps tout educational benefits for your little one.

As many parents of young children know, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under the age of two. Until recently, screen time was limited to televisions, computers, and video games. As of now, the AAP hasn't specifically included iPads in their guidelines, and they say that there isn't enough information yet for them to make any decisions about these newer forms of technology.

But should you give your baby an iPad? Dr. Nancy Darling, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, takes the middle road in answering this question. “Activities that are good for kids are those that allow them to act on their environment and that grow with them,” she explains. “IPads are good to the extent that they do that, and not good to the extent that they don't.”

Are iPads Beneficial?

According to Darling, iPads can be used in different ways that distance the high-tech gadget from the tried-and-true television. “The interactive nature of the iPad makes it more similar to a book than it to TV, cognitively,” she says. While television is a purely passive activity, an iPad forces kids to actually interact with the device.

In fact, Darling believes that in many instances, an smart tablet can actually provide an educational boost for young children. “In many ways, the iPad is more interactive than books,” she says. For example, imagine a child lying on her belly, drawing with her finger on an iPad. She's strengthening her fine motor skills every bit as much as if she were finger painting, and she can feel proud of the artwork that she produces.

Perhaps more importantly for many parents, iPads can give stressed out parents a much-needed break. “Children are used to a high level of stimulation all the time,” Darling explained. “There’s nothing wrong with an iPad entertaining them for short amounts of time. It’s no different than entertaining a child with audiobooks or music.”

The Downsides

Of course, an iPad’s greatest benefits are also its greatest downfall. Some parents can depend too much on small screens as a babysitter, which can absolve of some of the responsibility of entertaining their children. “What’s most important isn’t what they’re doing with the iPad,” explains Darling. “The problem isn’t the iPad, the problem is if you’re letting the iPad babysit your baby, you’re not playing with your baby. The iPad can be a wonderful way of interacting with your child. But if you’re handing them an interesting, interactive iPad so that they won’t need you, you’re losing out on that opportunity to interact with your child.”

And as much as parents don’t think that the time their children spend on iPads will dwarf the amount of time that they, as parents, get to spend with their children, many moms and dads find themselves on a slippery slope. “Because iPads are so engaging, it’s very easy for the kids to play with them for hours and hours and hours,” says Darling. “And when your child is quiet, it’s so tempting to just let them play because they’re happy. Happy is good! But compared to the rest of their environment, what your children do on the screen of an iPad or an iPhone is very limited compared to the range of sensory experiences available outside of books and screens.”

In addition, the actual act of playing with an iPad may be counterproductive for children. Young children are supposed to be busy exploring the physical world and learning about their environments. Push a toy wagon and the wheels make it roll; hug a teddy bear and its stomach squishes. On an iPad, however, they’re often limited in what they can do, especially without an adult’s guidance. Therefore, children who play for extended periods of time on an iPad may stifle available stimulation and lose out on a variety of experiences in the real world.

Darling also points out that screen time has been associated with some physical problems. For example, eye muscles learn to focus and follow objects at different distances. If a child, however, spends significant amounts of time staring at a flat screen, it may influence the way that their eye muscles develop. In addition, backlit devices like iPads can prevent children from sleeping well, since the bright lighting “tells” your child to wake up, rather than to go to sleep.

So What Does That Mean to You?

So should you let your older infant or young toddler play with your iPad? It depends. “What’s really important is what the kid does as a whole,” explains Darling. “There are lots of things that they can do where they have an effect on their environments. Whether it’s banging pots, or playing with an iPad, it doesn’t really matter.” All the same, if you find that your little one's spending excessive amounts of time on your iPad, it may mean that she’s losing out on time that could be spent doing more developmentally diverse activities—feeling objects, moving them around, and exploring them with her senses. Otherwise, use the iPad as a tool that can help you to interact with your child, and make sure that you also provide plenty of opportunities for hands-on play.