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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.

More studies are under way to find answers to questions about kids and touchscreens, Brown said. In the meantime, she lets her own children use her smartphone in limited instances.

The three Cs

Early Education Initiative director Lisa Guernsey, author of the 2012 book "Screen Time," said the three Cs she developed to guide parents in making rules about television and computer use hold up well as common-sense guidelines for touchscreens, too. Thinking about "content," "context" and "child" — as in a particular child's needs and preferences — can make touchscreen choices clearer for parents, she said.

The content of touchscreen apps needs to be appropriate for a child's age and developmental stage, Guernsey said, but an "educational" label doesn't mean an app has actually been tested to see if kids learn from it. And anything that includes aggressive language or video snippets should be avoided, as research shows that kids sometimes act out aggressive content. "You don't want that anywhere near young children," Guernsey said.

In pre-school years, children benefit most from simple, obvious activities that give them time to reflect on what they are learning without a lot of distractions, Guernsey said. The list of "Ten Top Apps for Babies" on Gerulat's "A Little Sussy" blog names some that she and Evie enjoy. The list includes "Peekaboo Wild," which teaches animal sounds and names; "Wheels on the Bus," which lets kids record their own voice as they sing along; and "Make it Pop!" which has clever games for learning about counting, shapes and colors.

Beloved children's books that read themselves to kids are another favorite touchscreen item for Gerulat, especially for moments when she is present but needs to wash dishes or dress for the day.

Guernsey favors simple, engaging apps that allow children to exercise creativity and do some of the thinking. One favorite, "DoodleCat," is a virtual sheet of paper inhabited by a cute kitty. Kids can drag in items to create a lively world of adventure for the cat, starting with an aquarium holding a wiggly fish that the kitty tries to catch. Basically, it's a sketch pad that comes to life and doesn't require expert drawing skill.

The best media interactions happen when children interact with parents, too, Guernsey said, and that's a key to her "context" category.

"There are fascinating opportunities to become partners in learning with your children," she said. "That can mean talking about which apps to download and explaining why you like some and dislike others. It can mean playing with apps together and having children talk about what they are doing on screens when you can't join in. Find some way to expand the experience so it's not just what they've experienced on the screen by themselves, but allows you to talk about it with them," she said.

Guernsey also encourages parents to think about an individual child's personality before choosing apps. One might be thrilled by an app based on dinosaurs or butterflies. Another might just love to hear herself sing and create songs. There are apps that foster all kinds of interests, she said, though use needs to be limited and monitored by a parent.

"On a basic level, a touchscreen is very different from older media," Guernsey said. Advancing the story, or getting to the next level of the game, requires a child to think and act. "By definition, that means that a little child's brain has to be more engaged," she said.

Setting parameters

Encouraging results from early studies about touchscreens, toddlers and learning come with many caveats, though, Guernsey said. It's imperative for children to have social interactions with parents, siblings and caregivers. If the screen comes out for brief periods when the parent can't give the child full attention anyway, that's probably fine. If the child is losing out on fun real-world experiences while transfixed by a touchscreen, that's a problem.

Gerulat lets Evie play with her phone when her daughter wakes up earlier than her mom wants to get up, and again when Gerulat takes time to get ready for the day.

"I want her on it then, because I know where she is and I'm monitoring it," she said. The rest of the time, outdoor play and family interactions take precedence.

Emily Ricks, a mother of three children living in Centennial, Colo., has developed touchscreen rules as her children have gotten older. Baby girl Trevva, 14 months, isn't allowed much iPad time, in part because Ricks isn't fond of cleaning drool from the expensive item. Sons Ethan, 8, and Jacob, 5, love technology, and Ricks uses iPad time as a reward for finishing piano practice and getting ready for school without dawdling. Ethan loves "Ski Safari," and his mother lets him use allowance money for in-app purchases to augment the game. But he gets more screen time if he chooses educational games like "Starfall," a suite of sequenced learning games.

Screen time — that means television, computer and touchscreens — is limited in the Ricks household, especially on weekdays. And after bedtime, screens are never allowed in the boys' room. But reading is allowed — "so, they read," Ricks said.

"It's my observation that technology will fill the empty spaces if you let it — all the empty spaces," Ricks said. "I want to be more proactive about my kids' lives."

That's wise, said pediatrician Ari Brown. From the cradle onward, children need many kinds of stimulation that screens don't provide.

"Young children are very tactile learners," she said. "You can't replace having two blocks in your hands, and figuring out how to stack one on top of the other. Kids have to manipulate things with their hands."

That doesn't mean parents need to berate themselves for letting kids enjoy supervised play with touchscreens, though.

"A lot of parents feel very guilty about using screen media with kids," Guernsey said. "After digging into the studies, and what they really say, I started feeling less guilty and wanting to optimize good times with kids through conversations about media we used together."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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