National Edition

Touchscreens and toddlers: The research is mostly good news

Published: Saturday, May 25 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

Evie Gerulat, 2, plays a spelling game Friday, May 24, on her mother's iPad.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

At the age of 8 months, Evie Gerulat grabbed an iPhone in her chubby, dimpled hand and figured out how to unlock it. At 12 months, she could open and use her favorite apps — interactive digital programs that taught her to mimic animal noises and recognize alphabet letters by sight and sound.

Evie, who lives in Orem, Utah, is 2½ now. Not long ago, she shot a movie and posted it to the Internet. She's no Steven Spielberg: the video footage was of her knees. It's doubtful Evie understood what the "publish" button on mom's smartphone would do. But she soon will.

Like millions of children born since the debut of the first iPhone in 2007, Evie is a touchscreen native. Her mother, commercial photographer Nicole Hill Gerulat, didn't plan on letting her baby play with her smartphone. But Evie had other ideas, and Gerulat observed that her baby was learning useful things when she got her hands on the phone, not simply "zoning out." She was identifying animals and objects, learning to count, and recognizing alphabet letters — and chortling with delight all the while.

Gerulat's anti-screen attitude evaporated, though she limits and supervises Evie's touchscreen time. Evie is learning good stuff and some random information, too, her mom said. Gerulat finds it comical that her daughter could mimic a hyena and spell the word "yak" before she could name common objects.

Helpful or harmful?

Children are mesmerized by touchscreens — babies and toddlers not excepted — and it's easy to hand a fussy child a smartphone or tablet that responds with intriguing sounds and images when poked. But can very young children really learn useful things from touchscreens? And if so, what parameters should parents set to make sure children don't get so focused on virtual interactions that they miss out on the real world?

Scientific research on children and touchscreens hasn't caught up with rapid advances in technology, but early indicators suggest that harried parents don't need to feel guilty every time they let a little one play with an interactive screen, as long as they limit and monitor kids' touchscreen use.

The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) stands by its firm (though widely ignored) ruling that watching videos isn't good for children younger than 2. But the interactive nature of touchscreens invites young children to think and respond. That affects developing brains in different ways than passive television viewing does, said Ari Brown, the doctor who is lead author of the guidelines on toddlers and television.

The guidelines say television and other entertainment media should be avoided for children under 2. But they apply only to passive media, such as television and movies, she said.

The AAP has no official position on touchscreens, Brown said, because the technology hasn't been in existence long enough to create and fund large studies and arrive at scientific results. Common sense says some touchscreen activities could have benefit, but many questions remain unanswered.

"Some of the things you'll find in the virtual world are approximations of games and toys we've played with kids in a different format — things that teach phonics, ordering, sequencing, pre-math and pre-reading skills that kids can certainly acquire from interactive media," Brown said. "The big-picture question is, how much time will you let your kid sit in front of a screen? Is that time well-spent, or is it taking away from other meaningful time?"

Preliminary research is encouraging. A 2013 study from the University of Wisconsin and Hollins University found that "interactive screens do hold potential for early learning." A 2010 study from Georgetown University showed that children who played a hide-and-seek game on a simple touchscreen could quickly find puppets hidden in a room that looked like the screen environment, whereas children who didn't play the game took longer to find the toys.

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