Toddlers & Tech: Are All Screens Created Equal?

Parents, pediatricians debate over technology use among young children.

October 18, 2010, 4:36 PM

Oct. 19, 2010— -- He's only 20 months old, but Daniela Suleiman Pottruck's son Max already knows the difference between a real cell phone and a fake one.

Give him a toy cell phone (or even an older, disconnected phone) and, within minutes, he'll drop it and move on to something else, his mother said. But give him a real BlackBerry or cell phone, and he'll mimic his parents talking until they take it away.

"Anything that has a button on it, he'll go for," Pottruck said.

As consumer technology becomes increasingly easy-to-use, engaging and affordable, pediatricians urge parents to resist their young children's cries for new digital toys.

For television, computers, cell phones, smartphones, tablets and more, the message remains the same: "screen time" should be kept to a minimum. For kids under 2 years old, they say screen time should be off limits altogether.

But with the rise of touchscreen devices, like Apple's iPhone and iPad, other child technology experts and parents argue something else: Not all screens are created equal.

Not only can using iPhone and iPad applications be developmentally appropriate for young kids, they might actually help them learn, they say.

Pottruck said Max's interest extends far beyond the cell phone. Apple's iPad, with its brightly-colored, interactive applications can hold his attention for long periods of time. And, copying his parents at the computer, he's even been able to bang away at a Mac keyboard to change songs on iTunes, she said.

But despite Max's excitement about the new technology, Pottruck said, she and her husband are careful about limiting his screen time.

"He doesn't really have a lot of exposure. ... I definitely want to wait until he's 2 to get more screen time," she said. "I know that eventually there's going to be no stopping him. I'd rather he play with blocks and do the old fashioned thing for now."

Pottruck said she's stricter than her friends when it comes to toddlers and technology, but, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, she's right on track.

Studies: Children Spend About 7 Hours in Front of Screen

"There is absolutely no hurry to rush kids into technology, either old or new. And the AAP recommends avoiding screen time for babies under the age of 2," said Dr. Vic Strasburger, a member of the AAP's council on communication and media and a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

"In terms of computer use and television and movies, I think parents need to be very cautious over the age of 2," he said. "There's every reason to believe that kids should be engaging in creative active play, not passive viewing, when they're very young."

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of seven hours a day in front of a screen, but Strasburger said that number should be brought down to no more than 2 hours a day, and for toddlers under 2, it should be zero.

"There are now half a dozen studies showing that babies exposed to screens may suffer from language delays," he said. "There has never been a study showing that it does any good."

In a recent New York Times article on the topic, Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, another AAP pediatrician, said the academy continually evaluates guidelines to accommodate new media, but hasn't altered its policy yet.

"We always try to throw in the latest technology, but the cellphone industry is becoming so complex that we always come back to the table and wonder should we have a specific guideline for cellphones," she said. But, she added, "At the moment, we seem to feel it's the same as TV."

But, Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children's Technology Review and one of several advisors to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said it's time for a change.

"I think touchscreen has brought new rules into the playroom," he said. "Just because this is glass and pixels does not mean it's somehow damaging. What I find frustrating is when people lump all of this into one category called 'screens.'"

Well-Designed Applications Put Kids in Driver's Seat

Video games and computer activities require mouses, keyboards and other layers, he said. But touchscreen technology removes those barriers and opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

If a child as young as 1-year-old responds to it, he said, there's no reason to stop a child from playing with an age-appropriate, well-designed smartphone application.

Touchscreens, which are developmentally appropriate for sensory-motor learners, can let kids simulate everything from cooking to popping bubblewrap to finger painting, he said.

"Would you take finger painting away from children? Well, only when it's getting paint over the living room rug," he said. "You can hand your child this very powerful experience."

The technology may be too young to show educational benefits backed by research, but he said parent experiences and expert reviews show that well-designed applications -- those that put children in control -- can engage kids and encourage learning.

He said that while critics may have a point in supporting real, concrete experiences over virtual ones, they can't count out all touchscreen applications.

"The key word here is empowerment. You want to empower a young child and here's a new tool that has come along," he said. "You can put the child in the driver's seat of a powerful thing. That's the payoff of technology."

Christopher Taylor, a Minnesota-based father of two, quickly learned that his iPhone could occupy his 1.5-year-old and 3-year-old toddlers. But instead of letting the technology turn his kids into "vidiots," he turned it into an opportunity for education.

He teamed up with a friend, Victor Johnson (who also happens to be a father), and started developing and selling in Apple's App store age-appropriate, educational smartphone applications that help kids learn shapes, learn to count and more.

"My basic take is, like anything, it's a tool that can be used well or poorly, and it's important to figure out how it fits into the context of raising a child," he said. "Part of the magic is that the devices truly engage kids and this interest opens a window for learning."

Given the potential they hold -- for joint learning with parents and play -- he said the artificial "screen time" limits don't make sense.

"Do we put limits on how long a kid can play with blocks? Why would we limit this same sort of creative play when it occurs on a screen? Screen time limits represent an easy out for parents," he said. "In my mind, great parenting includes an openness to new opportunities for kids, rather than limiting them to learning the way I did when I grew up."

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