Toddlers and touch screens: pros and cons for parents to consider

Published: Thursday, July 5 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

"I think the closest thing that parents have to go on (for touch-screen usage) is the recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding screen time," Knorr said. "And that organization recommends no screen time for children under 2 (years), but it's not a totally realistic recommendation to put into practice in most people's lives."

In researching his Wall Street Journal article "What happens when toddlers zone out with an iPad," Worthen interviewed a slew of doctors and professors who couldn't precisely explain how iPad usage affects a developing brain — but who also generally voiced reassurance to Worthen that the iPad wouldn't nuke his son's cranium.

"I was concerned that (my son's) brain was going to turn to mush and come out of his ears," Worthen joked. "But I was reassured by many leading experts that that wouldn't happen."

Ways to make it work

For parents seeking to incorporate touch-screen technology into the lives of their young children, techniques and guidelines exist to minimize the potential for undesirable outcomes.

Zach Parry is not an expert on child development per se — but the Las Vegas attorney is a parent whose home boasts as many children 6 years and younger (four) as Apple touch-screen devices (two iPhones, an iPad and an iPod touch).

The 6- and 5-year-old play games on the iPad a couple times a week, and the 2-year-old regularly watches movies on his mother's iPhone. With so much touch-screen usage occurring in his young family, Parry religiously relies on the power of consequences to incentivize his children toward putting away the devices when they're asked to do so.

"They're allowed to play until we say, 'Alright, put it away,'" Parry explained. "If they put it away immediately then they are praised, and if they do not then it's longer before they can use it again."

Knorr's primary advice for reaping maximum benefit from touch-screen technology entails never allowing an iPad to replace human interaction or some good, old-fashioned physical activity.

"The most important thing for parents to keep in mind," she said, "is that the most important thing for kids is to really be interacting with their world as they're growing — interaction with loving caregivers; and lots of time exploring their environments on their own, physically and cognitively."

Speaking specifically as to strategies for identifying touch-screen apps that young children can both enjoy and benefit from, Knorr referenced Common Sense Media's "Camp Virtual" — a free guide to enhancing summer learning that rates the learning value of more than 50 apps — and also encouraged parents to expect a quality app to exert all kinds of residual benefit on a young child's mind.

"Tablets and the apps that come with them have been shown to have a lot of merit and a lot of value in kids' education," Knorr said. "I think there are a lot of really exciting things that we're seeing, and parents should definitely be on the lookout for programs that provide both broad and deep experiences with the content."

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