Touch Screens and Your Child: To App or Not To App

This child is so immersed in the iPhone screen that he can't even participate in getting dressed for school. Hope he's learning something!

This child is so immersed in the iPhone screen that he can’t even participate in getting dressed for school. Hope he’s learning something!

Digital Natives

Called “digital natives,” because they have never known an existence without the internet, our kids navigate touch screens almost instinctively, with the same ease that a tadpole learns to swim. (What does that make those of us born after 1993, you ask? “Digital immigrants,” evidently trying our best to adapt to this strange new world.)

Let’s start right off the bat by saying that this is neither a diatribe for nor against toddler technology usage. There is still so much to be learned about this issue, but opening the conversation certainly seems worthwhile. Because, for many parents, besieged daily by work, laundry, phone calls, bills to pay—those bazillion myriad demands on our time and energy—the personal table or smart phone becomes almost a temporary surrogate, immediately appeasing a whining or misbehaving child when our attention has already been commanded. Or, how about the alluring possibility of grabbing 15 minutes’ more sleep on Saturday morning . . . Sure, honey, you can play with Mommy’s iPad! But once the tasks are seen to, or the coffee has kicked in, the guilt floods in, right? Are we turning their brains to mush? Shouldn’t they be outside, enjoying an idyllic, tech-free childhood (like Heidi)?

According to a new article by Hanna Rosin featured in April’s The Atlantic, we may be beating ourselves up unecessarily. Sure, using apps to babysit our kids probably isn’t the ideal to aspire to, but a little screen time, it turns out, is probably not only fine, but is maybe even good for them in moderation. One key is that iPads and the apps that we download onto them are interactive, and interactivity fosters deeper engagement and thereby faster learning. The difference in brain scans of a child watching a passive television show versus playing Toca Tea Party (a toddler-sized app), for example, is startling.

In “The Touch Screen Generation,” Rosin argues that, “if parents ‘treat screen time like junk food, or ‘like a magazine at the hair salon’ — good for passing the time in a frivolous way but nothing more, then the child will fully absorb that attitude, and the neurosis will be passed to the next generation.” In other words, if we consider it contraband, they will too. Her response was to see what would happen if she gave her 4-year-old son free access to the iPad. She found that he played with it obsessively for a few days, after which it lost that “forbidden fruit” appeal and was relegated to the rotation the rest of his toys cycled through. Rosin’s article is a great read—you can find her story as well as a video on how kids use iPads here. She also includes a list of apps that are “cool in toddler world.”

But in “Parents of the Touch-Screen Generation,’ Don’t Free Your iPad Yet,” KJ Dell’Antonia counters that Rosin is missing a key use of iPads for young kids—“a middle way between ‘neurosis’ and full-blown iPad freedom.” In the United States, she writes, we tend to see apps as either educational or entertaining (or both, at their best). Quoting Lisa Guernsey, author of “Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child,” Dell’Antonia writes that in Europe, schools are “teaching the children to use the iPads to make them creators and documenters of their learning.” Instead of always drawing them in to that immersed, “zombie-like” state, the iPads are used to connect them to their world—surroundings, family, friends.

We started with the more positive perspective on this issue because the outcry against screen time for toddlers and kids is a bit more vociferous, and the point of view in favor of moderate, supervised usage can get drowned out. But let’s now take a look at the very real reasons we’re so emotional (guilty, afraid, angry, etc.) about our adorable little digital natives.

Well, for one thing, the screen’s going to get very sticky.

There’s one objection for you. On a more serious note, other objections range from zombie-ism to missing out on time spent outdoors to becoming socially dysfunctional. In a May 2012 broadcast of her NPR show, Diane Rehm asked, “What’s all this screen time doing to these young developing brains?” The jury is still very much out on that (the technology having existed for less time than it takes to conduct a viable study) although research is being done at a furious pace. (Even this becomes an objection for some—are we turning our kids into science experiments?) Nevertheless, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), who in 1999 strongly advised against television for kids under age 2 years, issued a 2011 update with even more stringent warnings. Now they say to restrict access to any screen for this age group. Seems a bit draconian, given that these same babies likely see their parents interacting with screens of all sizes, all the time, and their instinct is to mimic what they see their parents doing.

Draconian measures notwithstanding, the AAP’s stance certainly gives parents of toddlers pause. We might do best, along with KJ Dell’Antonia, not going all the way to unrestricted iPad use. All things in moderation, right?

Some advice from an Application Usability Specialist . . .

“As an Application Usability Specialist with two young children,” writes one parent very intimate with this issue, “my children have been immersed in technology since birth.” He says that as his “testers,” his kids have learned “math, resource management, flexible thinking, situation analysis, information analysis, goal-setting and sharing, yes sharing.”

His advice? Parents should:

  • Make sure apps are age appropriate!
  • Read the app reviews first!
  • The parents have to do the homework and play the game first.
  • Don’t purchase so-called educational games based upon a “commercial toy property” (i.e., Dora the Explorer) and expect that education will come first. My personal exception to this rule is Sesame Street and PBS properties, because education always comes first with PBS.
  • Play the games with your children.
  • Some of the best games are from independent designers and developers.
  • Size does not equal quality. Some of the best apps are the simplest.
  • The best touch-screen interface is a book! It never runs out of power and is usable with any sufficient light source. (Note: Hanna Rosin takes issue with the notion that books are inherently better than screens: “My daughter, after all, often uses books as a way to avoid social interaction, while my son uses the Wii to bond with friends.”)

And in the above-mentioned book, Lisa Guernsey says much the same thing with her “3 Cs” of media consumption: Content, Context, and your Child. Triangulating the 3Cs can guide app selection and usage under almost any circumstance.

Just for fun?

As a final word, the App That Shall Not Be Named has not yet been mentioned here, and, given its entrenchment in the hearts and minds of little kids, it should be. Of course we control what we download on the iPad, but let’s face it, parents, it’s not always that simple. Once kids see Angry Birds, which is everywhere, they want to play Angry Birds, not Montessori Letter Sounds. “You know those shoot -em up games?” asked one mother. “They’re kinda fun,” she said smiling a little sheepishly.

Apps are fun!

Enjoying the game he was playing so much, this child paused midway up the stairs, lost in the experience. Good? Bad? Probably here to stay.

For more on this issue:

3 thoughts on “Touch Screens and Your Child: To App or Not To App

  1. Well, as an elementary school teacher of 21st century learners, I can definitely say I agree with you that YES, they are here to stay. As a matter of fact, my school is going to be the only elementary school to pilot IPADS in the county within the next year. We are all extremely excited because as educational professionals, the teachers in my school know that technology is one of the most effective way to get kids engaged in learning. I also believe that getting kids outside and learning about their environment is extremely important. Guess what, there are PLENTY of apps for that too, so kids can have the best of both worlds! For instance, last year my 5th graders researched and then planted native plants in the front of the school yard for our “native plant schoolyard garden.” This year, my 4th graders made small clay gargoyles to serve as rain collectors (rain barrels) for the garden. The 5th graders learned about bluebirds and then made beautiful clay birdhouses for the garden. Now that we have the garden well established, the “outdoor learning classroom” can begin. The apps that we will use are as follows, an air quality app, a water rain gauge app as well as a water tester app, an app that shows what other plants will work within the garden to further our research, there are even apps that detect the type of bird by the sound it makes! The list goes on and on and the learning is not only fun but also connects with their world. What a great time to be a kid and a teacher!!!!

  2. I say this with extreme hesitation, but there may even be hope for “the App That Shall Not Be Named,” according to an Associated Press article called “Heads up, space fans! Angry Birds roosting at NASA” that you can read here: http://phys.org/news/2013-03-space-fans-angry-birds-roosting.html.

    The astronaut who conceived of the collaboration between NASA and Angry Birds says he thought, “Wow, this could be a great venue for getting some physics and getting some math and getting some science into something that has the connotation as just an empty brain-draining video game that sucks out the creativity from the minds of young people.”

    There’s also lots of physics talk about trajectories, ellipses, hyperboles, etc. The astronaut says all of this is “latent in the game” and could be “mined out . . . and used as an excuse to learn more.”

    Maybe? Still very skeptical . . .

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