Toddler with a mobile phone.

All those interactive digital toys and mobile apps designed for little kids are exactly the type of gifts parents should take off their holiday shopping lists, US pediatricians say.

That’s because just like parking kids in front of the television, giving them tablets and smartphones to play games or handing them digitally enhanced toys gets in the way of creative play and interactions with caregivers that are essential for child development, according to a clinical report released on Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

“Physical toys (and books) support warm, verbally rich interactions and quality time for the parent or caregiver and the child,” said report co-author Dr Alan Mendelsohn of New York University School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City.

“The same is not true for digital toys, which actually impede those interactions,” Mendelsohn said by email. “There is little or no evidence that screen time has any benefit for young children two and under.”

Under two years of age, children shouldn’t have any screen time at all, whether it’s television or digital games and toys, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Too often, however, parents give infants and toddlers digital apps and toys out of a mistaken belief that this can be educational, Mendelsohn and colleagues note in their report, published in Paediatrics.

One of the most important purposes of play during childhood – especially for infants and toddlers – has nothing to do with ABCs or 123s. The point of play for very young children should be to foster warm, supportive interactions with caregivers and help kids develop early social, emotional and behavioural skills, the doctors say.

When digital apps and toys do help children with optimal development, it’s usually because they’re using the toys with parents and caregivers, they note. When kids play alone, however, there’s no clear advantage to having smartphones, tablets or digital interactive toys.

Ideally, parents should choose toys that are not overstimulating and encourage children to use their imaginations.

Social, emotional and behavioural skills are developed and enhanced when kids use play to work out real-life problems, doctors note.

Total screen time, including television and computer use, should be less than one hour a day for children two years and older, the APP recommends.

Children younger than five years should only play with a computer or video games if the games are developmentally appropriate, and they should be with a parent or caregiver while they play, pediatricians advise.

Doctors might give different advice to parents of children with special needs than for parents of typically developing kids, however. That’s because children with certain intellectual or physical restrictions might in some instances benefit from technology that makes it easier for them to play.

Even if a technology is necessary to help children overcome certain impairments, parents and caregivers should play with kids when they’re using digital apps and toys instead of leaving children alone.

“Psychologists have long urged parents not to simply plop a child in front of a television set to stare at the screen alone, but rather to practice co-viewing, stopping often to interact with the child over content and ensure they are getting the developmentally important messages,” said Larry Rosen of California State University Dominguez Hills.

“I am not suggesting that digital toys are worthless,” Rosen, who wasn’t involved in the AAP report, said by email. “Quite the contrary, I see them as a wonderful adjunct to allow parents another way of pumping critical skills and information into their children in an engaging environment.”

But sometimes that adage is true, and parents will find kids’ favourite part of the toy is the box it came in.

“Often parents may feel pressure to get their kids the newest, digital educational toy for their children, but this… is not needed,” said Jennifer Emond of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

“Toys can be crafted from supplies available at home,” Emond, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “We don’t need to spend a lot of money on toys to help our children develop; simpler may be better.”

EWN