(This article originally appeared on Grandparents.com.)
Earlier this month, my two-year-old walked up to our TV screen, placed his hand on it and attempted to swipe the image from right to left.
Needless to say, it didn’t work. Our television isn’t a touch screen. (Neither is Gigi’s camera, another item he tried to swipe.) And while my son didn’t think twice about his flick of the wrist, it made my husband and I wonder: How are our iPhones and iPad rewiring that tiny, impressionable brain?
We’d love to consult the experts or some studies, but there’s been surprisingly little research about the developmental effects of touch screens on younger children. That’s due in large part to the devices’ newness. As recently as 2011, just 8 percent of households with kids under 8 had a tablet, according to a survey by Common Sense Media (CSM).
Times are changing, however, and changing quickly. By 2013 — just two years later — 40 percent of those same households owned a tablet. In 2017 that number ballooned to 78 percent, and 95 percent of families own smartphones. Even the youngest kids have used touch screens. CSM found that 46 percent of children under 2 used touch screens in 2017 — up from 38 percent in 2013 and 10 percent in 2011.
As touch screen ownership becomes an inevitability — your grandchild may have received one for a gift this past holiday season — so does the need for answers, especially to one key question: How do we make the best of this?
What We Know About Touch Screens
Much of what we know about touch screens and babies, toddlers and preschoolers comes from research about media in general, particularly television. We know that excessive time in front of a screen — any screen — takes away from face-to-face interaction, which is key to cognitive development. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises creating “screen-free” areas in your home and “for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies and using their imaginations in free play.”
We know the jury is out on the educational benefits of simply handing a young child a touch screen.
On one hand, a study of babies and toddlers from Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York found “no significant difference in testing scores between children [age 0-3] who used touchscreen devices [to play educational games] compared with children who did not use these devices.” What’s more, kids who played non-educational touch screen games “had lower verbal test scores upon testing,” suggesting that mindless gaming may actually detract from development.
On the other hand, we know that iPads, Nexuses and Galaxies can be powerful learning tools when used in certain, constructive ways. “I think people tend to think of tablets as socially isolating, but if you put two, three, four kids in a room, they will gather around the touch screen,” said Michael Robb of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. “And if the teacher uses a tablet as part of a lesson, you better believe kids are crowding.”
We know that what best determines experience with a touch screen isn’t necessarily what a child does with it but rather how a child uses it. That’s where you come in, grandparents.
Make the Best Out of Toddlers and Touch Screens
To promote responsible tablet use and maximize potential for positive interaction including attaining educational goals, adult participation is key. Robb notes a few key strategies:
Be there when they play. “I think it’s important that parents or grandparents are with the child. Sit down and be with the child while they’re playing. Obviously that’s not possible all the time, but you want to know what they’re doing, and if the child wants you to be there, it’s great to be there and have that shared experience,” said Robb. Discussing the game or app enriches learning, as well. “You kind of have to lead the situation,” Robb added. “Talk about what they’re seeing and doing while they’re playing it, as long as you’re not slowing the progress of the game. Ask afterward about what they saw or heard or did.”
Take an active part in choosing the good stuff. “Choose developmentally appropriate media. Is it well-matched to their interest, to their ability level? Is it free of violence, sexual content, overt commercialism? It doesn’t have to be 100 percent educational, because there are some quality apps that aren’t necessarily educational, and there are some educational apps that aren’t high quality. Something that’s clearly engaging and motivates them adds value,” said Robb. Endless Alphabet, Monkey Preschool Lunchbox and Nighty Night are good examples of helpful apps for your littlest ones.
Balance tablets — and all technology — with other activities. “Use [tech] in balance with other things, and it can be valuable. Certainly that’s true for older children ages 3-5. For 0-2: I wouldn’t say ‘Don’t use media,’ but I would do it in such a way that it supports human relationships. The person next to you is the most important part of that experience,” Robb said. Reading an interactive bedtime story — perhaps the well-regarded The Monster at the End of This Book — can be part of an education, as well as a wonderful memory. Robb emphasizes that sometimes, we have to relax. “I don’t think there’s one way to interact around digital,” he said.
There are a variety of resources to further guide you and your grandchild. In December 2014, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center published Family Time with Apps: A Guide to Using Apps with Your Kids, an excellent guide to constructive touch screen use with children. It even includes a part on fostering long-distance relationships. Finally, Robb suggests Toca Boca, which has, “very high-quality apps, and kids like them, though they don’t necessarily teach the alphabet. They lend themselves to different types of play.”
Ultimately the effects of touch screens on young children won’t be known for years — maybe even decades. In the meantime it’s important to remember that kids will benefit most when an adult is guiding them. Simply: They’ll get what you give.
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