Toddlers and touchscreens: Scourge or salvation?

"That Electronic Glow," by toastforbrekkie, on Flickr

“That Electronic Glow,” by toastforbrekkie, on Flickr

Because of a family vacation next week, I’m looking for some iPad apps in hopes of keeping my 16-month-old daughter entertained on the long flights. So far she’s shown very little interest in screens of any kind. I tried to sit her down to watch “Wonder Pets” the other day for a break when she had a cold, and after five minutes, she saw a ball on screen. She said “Ball!” climbed off my lap, and went to fetch her real ball.

The issue of toddlers’ use of technology is back in the news with a widely shared article that ran this week in the UK Telegraph. Apparently the founder of the first “technology addiction” program in the country is treating a four-year-old girl for iPad addiction.

Her parents enrolled her for compulsive behaviour therapy after she became increasingly “distressed and inconsolable” when the iPad was taken away from her.

Her use of the device had escalated over the course of a year and she had become addicted to using it up for to four hours a day.”

Of course, just as in the case of the Sumatran smoking 2-year-old, it’s tempting to tie this “addiction” to parental misbehavior. But there’s a profound ambivalence in the culture at this moment about our own relationship to ubiquitous interactive technology, and it naturally plays out in parenting dramas as well.

This post will look at the downsides and dangers of technology use by very young children. Thursday’s post will look at the positive sides, or at least mitigating factors, in trying to forge a better relationship with the screens all around us.

Joan Almon is the founding director of the Alliance for Childhood , which backed last year’s comprehensive report Facing the Screen Dilemma:Young Children, Technology, and Early Education.

A malaise

Almon’s group of professional therapists, pediatricians and educators starts with the premise that something, in fact, is ailing America’s children–almost a syndrome, or at any rate, a characteristic malaise. She points out that since the 80s, there’s been startling increases in food allergies, asthma, obesity, autism spectrum disorders, hyperactivity, and serious psychological and behavioral disorders among very young children.

Immersion in electronic media–not even the favorite bogeyman, violent video games–cannot be faulted directly for any of these problems, though research is ongoing. But, Almon says, “high levels–we’re not talking abut small doses, but high levels of screentime–interfere with a lot of things that should be taking place in children’s lives.” Her research indicates that two thirds of babies between one and two years old are watching TVs for over two hours a day (the official American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation is zero), and that estimates of preschoolers’ screen-based media time range from 2.2 to 4.6 hours per day. With those kinds of numbers, first of all, the “addicted” UK girl doesn’t look like such an outlier anymore. And, considering that a child of those ages is only awake 10 to 12 hours a day, it’s easy to understand how this much screen time might be displacing a child’s loving interaction with caregivers, free playtime, 0r playing outside.

Hand skills

One compelling piece of anecdotal evidence Almon cites is reports from occupational therapists who are being called in to work with otherwise developmentally normal school-age children who lack the “hand skills” to hold a pencil properly, or tie their shoes. This raises concerns about the future workforce, although iPad apps, ironically, are also being used to help children develop hand and finger control and communicate more freely.

The 3-D world

Almon calls the promotion of computers in education, especially early childhood education, “a boondoggle.” Yes, tech engages children, but, she says, “Children are enthusiastic about drinking Coke and eating chocolate cake. That doesn’t mean we let them do it all the time. We’ve not exercised that moderation with technology.  We’ve believed it’s the more the better, and there’s really no evidence to show that.” To concerns about modernizing education, she says, “If you look at great people in the technology field, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, they didn’t start working with computers until they were 12 or older.”

There’s a class issue at work here too. The main reason my child has so little screentime is because my husband and I work flexible schedules, leaving us plenty of time to engage with her, and can afford high quality childcare–something that is in shockingly short supply nationwide.

So the question becomes, not so much how is technology damaging young children’s brains, but what are we missing or seeking to replace with the screen as an easy fix?

“What they learn in 3D space about themselves, their own bodies and the world around them, a lot of that learning does not seem to take place with a flat screen.”


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON April 24, 2013

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[…] magazine last month, addressed a common dilemma. The American Academy of Pediatrics, as I noted earlier, recommends no screen time at all for children under age two, yet 90 percent of parents with […]

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