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Touchscreens and toddlers: The research is mostly good news

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

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.

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