By Dhara Thakar Meghani
Did you know? 75% of all kids under the age of 8 have access to electronic devices at home.
If you’re a parent whose child figured out how to swipe before she learned how to wipe (you-know-what), you’re probably raising a digital native – electronic devices have been a part of her universe since day one. Technology and related apps and content have become increasingly sophisticated in your child’s lifetime alone, and hint at developmental gains without the backing of much research. This trend has parents both excited and proud to showcase a digitally literate toddler, while others are more nervous about what early and frequent exposure to multiple devices means for later development.
Concerns abound regarding how a parent should navigate this emerging, but permanent fixture in the generations ahead. The question is no longer whether young children should be introduced to digital devices, but rather how they should be using them. This issue has gotten a lot of press in recent years, and has spurred a few landmark reports from organizations and professionals who care about children’s development within this technologically-driven context. The key points are summarized below, but keep in mind they are broad strokes since the topic is still too young to be well researched.
• The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of 2¹, although this goal has become less realistic as iPads, Kindles, TVs, and smart phones become more prominent in households. A report released by Common Sense Media² in October 2013 confirmed this shift, noting that nearly 40% of children under the age of 2 have used these gadgets. See here for an infographic with other interesting findings from this report.
The take home: Alright, so the AAP’s recommendation might be interpreted a bit loosely these days since eliminating screen time for your ‘underage’ toddler might seem impossible. At the same time, try limiting screen exposure to interactive content. The cognitive and motor development of children under 2 is largely facilitated by their social and emotional gains, so the more they engage in screen time with a caregiver or have an interactive experience with an app, the better. A video chat session with nani and nana who might be thousands of miles away, for example, might be a perfect opportunity to use screen time wisely.
• A joint statement by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media³ strongly advocates for the intentional and appropriate use of devices. A study commissioned by the US Department of Education in 20124 specifically regarding the usability and educational value offered by the Apple iPad found that content that was not matched to children’s developmental level was not effective and could be seen as a missed opportunity for engagement and learning.
The take home: It is important to remember the recommended age for apps may not completely fit the needs for your child. Caregivers should download apps based on what they know about their child’s interests and capabilities; some of it is intuitive, and some of it means recognizing that children might change the rules of a game if they are too young to understand, or that their patience might wear thin if it is an app that is too elementary for their level5.
• Psychologist and author of book, The Big Disconnect6, Catherine Steiner-Adair voices worry about the fragmentation of relationships in households where electronic devices replace hands-on play, intimate conversation, and outdoor activities. Her anecdotal evidence from talking with preschool and kindergarten teachers suggests that children are overstimulated by excessive use of tablets, phones, and computers, and are less likely to pay attention and succeed in school.
The take home: Devices should not replace the opportunity for children to engage socially with other important people in their lives. Parents, too, should question how their own usage impacts children’s formation of identity, especially in the early years, and reflect on whether they are sending signals that their child needs to compete with daddy’s laptop for attention.
As is evident from these recommendations, the majority of information currently available is regarding usage patterns and the type of content children are exposed to; there remains much work ahead in determining how spending time on these devices interacts with the developing mind.
In the spirit of Screen-Free Week (which is observed the first week of May across the globe, and began as a response to society’s growing reliance on electronic devices), here are a few additional ways to quiet minds and restore the household balance that you might feel has been disrupted by the digital revolution:
• If a whole week sans screens will create WWIII in your house, think about starting slowly. A few hours or a screen-free day might be a great start.
• Transform your child’s favorite app-based game into reality; for example, play dress-up in real life if your child is into the popular app “Dress Me Up,” and bring home a palette of paint, stickers, and drawing tools to give your child the sensory experiences that are absent from the “Drawing Pad” app. Although sometimes messier and more time consuming, these activities can unleash creativity, help children proactively address boredom, and strengthen family relationships.
• For your little ones, The Baby Unplugged blog offers nice alternatives to screen-based play and also encourages their cognitive and sensory-motor development.
• Try toning down your use of devices to the extent you can – as children see you engage more fully with the world around you and with them, they too, will learn that there’s only so much they can unlock with a swipe or a tap.
¹Brown, A. (2011). Media use by children younger than 2 years. Pediatrics,128(5), 1040-1045.
²Common Sense Media, & Rideout, V. (2011). Zero to eight: Children’s media use in America. Common Sense Media
³National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. (2012). Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Retrieved from NAEYC website: http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/PS_technology_WEB.pdf
4Michael Cohen Group LLC, US Department of Education Ready to Learn Evaluation Team. (2012). Young Children, Apps, and iPad. Retrieved from http://mcgrc.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/ipad-study-cover-page-report-mcg-info_new-online.pdf
5National Association for the Education of Young Children (2012). Selected Examples of Effective Classroom Practice Involving Technology Tools and Interactive Media. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/PS_technology_Examples.pdf
6Steiner-Adair, C., & Barker, T. H. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. HarperCollins.
Original image here