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

Published: Thursday, July 5 2012 4:41 p.m. MDT

Magic happened the first time Wall Street Journal technology reporter Ben Worthen let his 2-year-old son use an iPad.

During all five hours of a cross-country flight, the child happily immersed himself in the iPad via age-appropriate content such as kids' games, an app for drawing and "Curious George" cartoons. Indeed, the boy intuitively grasped how to operate the device that Worthen had borrowed for his son to use on the plane.

Worthen and his wife eventually bought their own iPad, and shortly thereafter they noticed their son's awareness of and interest in letters increase as the boy played word games and puzzles on the touch-screen tablet. And in a pinch, the iPad was always ready to step in as a de facto baby sitter if and when the Worthen family's newborn second child required immediate attention.

But the Worthens also observed a darker side to their son's iPad usage: he fixated on the screen so intensely that he wouldn't respond when his parents called his name, and the boy whined incessantly when asked to put the iPad away.

Following some hand wringing and debate, the Worthens ultimately decided to take the iPad away from their son. Two weeks of iPad withdrawals ensued, but the boy (now 4 years old) adapted and today he rarely inquires anymore about the device.

Even though the strategy successfully stamped out the whining spells, Worthen remains ambivalent about the decision.

"I don't know — I'm not convinced that taking it away was the right decision," he said. "But I haven't figured out a really good strategy for moderating it."

Worthen's experience is characteristic of an emerging trend among families with young children: the elegant simplicity of touch-screen devices such as iPads and iPhones permits kids to actively engage technology at increasingly younger ages. But the touch-screen phenomenon is so new that no definitive scientific research exists to show how iPads may affect the mental development of young children. As a result, parents are armed with little more than intuition and anecdotal evidence as they make potentially impactful decisions about when and how to introduce touch-screen technology into their kids' lives.

Finger-friendly at any age

Last year the nonprofit advocacy group Common Sense Media set out to gauge the state of media consumption among young children. The resulting research study, "Zero to eight: Children's media use in America," illustrated the rising popularity of touch-screen devices. Chief among these are the iPhone and iPad — first released in 2007 and 2010, respectively — which in many cases aren't any older than the children using them.

The "Zero to eight" findings concluded, "Half (52 percent) of all children now have access to one of the newer mobile devices at home: either a smartphone (41 percent), a video iPod (21 percent) or an iPad or other tablet device (8 percent)."

Furthermore, the survey revealed that for children under the age of 5, the use of touch-screen smartphones and tablets is already on par with more established technologies like computers and video-game consoles.

"The (touch-screen) interface is something that kids don't even need to learn because it's so intuitive," said Common Sense Media parenting editor Caroline Knorr. "It is very easy for kids to figure it out because they aren't afraid of technology, like some parents might be intimidated by it. … The platform really offers the ability for designers and game developers to provide a game experience that's just so unique — (both) broad and deep."

Too new to know

The prevalence of touch-screen devices is so new that no on-point scientific research exists ­on the topic — a dynamic that, in the Information Age, amounts to a veritable rarity.

"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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