Mixing toddlers and touchscreens can be a tricky – not to say sticky – situation for parents today. Adults often find themselves glued to their smartphones and tablets – and unsure of what to do when it comes to sharing these devices with their children.
Should they follow the (somewhat surprising) example of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, and ban them altogether? Or is it better to go Facebook’s way Mark Zuckerberg, who seems eager to share the magic of social media with their young family?
To help us understand the concerns and possible benefits of touch screens, we need to consider both the context and content of their use.
Touch screens are multifunctional and their uses are often multiple. Many of them don’t have a strictly educational purpose, but they can improve children’s self-regulation skills (as well as parenting strategies).
Tablets are also used for calm or distract toddlers during travel or medical procedures. Ultimately, it is up to each parent to decide what is important to their child, themselves and their family.
That said, it can be useful to ensure touchscreens are used for a variety of activities. Simply using them to play repetitive games is an underutilization of their potential to support so many other activities. These include apps that can be used for a variety of activities such as creating simple books or drawing and coloring.
To help support children reading for fun for example, there are many good quality apps available, some of which are reviewed on sites such as Literacy apps and Kids Tech Review. At Common Sense Media Review Parents can browse app reviews by skill type, subject, device, price, and ratings.
Research and development
Age-related recommendations for duration or frequency of use vary by country. This reflects different attitudes towards state responsibility for family policy, but also cultural expectations regarding childhood.
The American Academy of Pediatrics interprets what it perceives as a lack of positive conclusive research as a reason for adopting a precautionary approach. He currently suggests that children under 18 months should be discouraged from using on-screen media, other than for video chat. In other countries, there is a growing consensus on the need for an international approach to the use of technology with young children.
A European research network group is dedicated to this mission – and progress has been made, with advice for parents to be launched later in 2017. In the meantime, his website has publications on issues such as children’s engagement with virtual reality and “the internet of toys”.
UK, parents of the youngest children (under two) are the most worried on the impact of digital media on health. Again there is evidence that many infants are already using touchscreen technologies. For children of all ages, but especially younger ones, supervised use is recommended – for example adults and children sometimes play games and participate in other activities together.
A number of applications, such as CBeebies Where Toca Boca, focus on developing appropriate skills, such as hand-eye coordination, and are inspired by well-established games for toddlers, such as hide-and-seek and hide-and-seek.
Research on the use of technology is still new and requires agreement on what we measure and how. This is compounded by the problem that we would need repeated, longitudinal studies to have advice that is only for touch screens and applies to all children. But some research has already begun to uncover evidence about touchscreens and particular learning skills.
For example a study found that using touch screens can speed up children’s fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and visual attention. Another showed that toddlers can learn new animal names from e-books for tablet. However, other studies have shown that toddlers can retain knowledge and real world transfer what they learn on touch screens only if the interaction is supported by adults.
Organizations such as the UK National Literacy Trust and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in the United States are therefore focused on encouraging positive shared use of technology in families, whether for joint reading of e-books Where play games together.
The use of touch screens in families is changing rapidly, as is the functional ability of touch screens and the quality of their programs. We are still to build a complete roadmap of risks and opportunities.
But despite the popularity and novelty of these technologies, one thing is certain. Let’s not forget the permanent needs of parents and children to communicate with each other and share the joys of everyday objects that are not accompanied by a screen.