Should Toddlers Use Tablets and Smartphones After All?

New research suggests that using screens may in fact yield slight benefits to very young children when it comes to learning

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Life with an almost 9-month-old is like a revolving door — everything that’s old is new: Sophie the rubber giraffe, a crinkly piece of yellow cloth-wrapped plastic, a strange plush-toy thingamajig with half a dozen waggling appendages. But these pale in comparison with the family smartphones, tablets and laptops, which gleaming screens our little boy would probably sit for hours watching if we allowed it, mesmerized by computer-generated images of owls trampolining off cloud tops or beaming stars which closeups conjure smiles and sometimes shrieks of delight.

Every time I whip out my smartphone in his vicinity, I feel like Frodo donning the One Ring. It’s as if my child can sense its presence (that, or he’s associated “crack-cocaine-supertoy-appear!” with the zombie faces we probably make as we’re tapping away). If we face the screen toward him, whoa, Nellie: up come both hands, mouth popping wide, arms reaching out like Superman about to take flight.

I always thought little kids were drawn to backlit screens because of repetition and acclimation, as in the case of parents who drop them in front of cartoons and use the screens as babysitters, the addiction inculcated — but it has to be more than that. Our little boy was hypnotized the first time he noticed the TV screen, just a few months old, craning his neck in ways we’d not yet seen, desperately trying to keep the screen (an episode of Breaking Bad, if memory serves) in view from his vantage on the floor as we worked to face him away from it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly warned that screen time for children under the age of 2 is a no-no. Why? Research suggests it delays language development and can disrupt sleep. Generally speaking, we know that interacting directly and routinely with your child is paramount when it comes to hitting established developmental milestones. In fact, a recent story in the New York Times referenced research by academics Betty Hart and Todd Risley (published in the 1995 book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children), who found that the more parents spoke to their children and the broader the parents’ vocabulary, the higher the child’s IQ and the better he or she performed in school.

But what about this rush of new technology into our lives? Screens that require more than just the click of a remote’s power button? Devices like tablets and smartphones where there’s an interactive angle absent from traditional television? What about the deluge of appmakers capitalizing on the meteoric rise of mobile computers and proportional dearth of reliable information about design or screen-time appropriateness for young children?

The BBC asked that question recently and found, a little surprisingly, several researchers voting for the potential of screens to enhance early learning. The key: the screens had to involve a two-way flow of information, responding to user input instead of delivering information passively.

Take Heather Kirkorian, an academic at the University of Wisconsin, who reports that while research increasingly indicates noninteractive video isn’t educationally valuable for kids under 3, “some studies suggest that toddlers learn from screens when they are interactive.” That research further indicates toddlers “are more likely to demonstrate learning from video when interacting with a contingently responsive social partner on screen,” adds Kirkorian.

But must the video be socially interactive to facilitate learning in younger children? That, among other things, is what Kirkorian wants to know:

Does contingency in and of itself promote learning from screens by very young children? If so, how is it effective? Interactive media may have far greater potential than traditional screen media to offer any benefit to children younger than three years of age.

Kirkorian’s research is turning up intriguing results. In one test, she found that children aged 2 to 3 were more likely to react to screens that prompted for interaction than ones that didn’t, and she was able to repeat those results in a second test involving word learning. “Kids who are interacting with the screen get better much faster, make fewer mistakes and learn faster,” she told the BBC, adding, “but we’re not turning them into geniuses, just helping them get a little more information.”

Still, even if it turns out that devices like tablets and smartphones aren’t hindering and may in fact be helping young children learn, it’s pretty much the Wild, Wild West out there landscape-wise. Appmakers increasingly make claims about the benefits of this or that child-related application, and the market’s growth has been explosive. According to a January 2012 analysis of the education category in Apple’s App Store conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, nearly three-quarters of the top-selling apps targeted preschool- or elementary-age children, and the most popular were “early learning apps” aimed at toddlers and preschoolers.

Take Fisher Price. The company contacted me back in June 2012 (prior to the birth of my child) about its Apptivity lineup: essentially “kid-proof” toys into which you might place a mobile device like an iPhone, lending the toy enhanced interactive capabilities. That part I found interesting, as any would-be parent with a smartphone might. But in the press release, the company added that in internal testing, it’d found that babies “only 6 to 9 months old” already “knew how to swipe and handle an iPhone” as well as “where the location and function of the home button was.” What does that mean? It’s impossible to say; there’s not even a “9 in 10 doctors recommend” attempt to validate the intimation that your child needs something like this to become tech-savvy. And that’s the sort of nebulous marketing parents increasingly face, the whole “your kid can use an iPhone at six months!” approach decoupled from scientific advice, subtly playing on the concerns all parents have that their child needs the latest, greatest whatever to get a head start (or simply stay abreast of things).

The jury on tablet and smartphone use by young children was out 1½ years ago; it’s still out in early 2013, the consensus currently being that these devices work best when they’re employed as complementary to parental interaction, say, as conversation starters (as opposed to conversation enders, or simply babysitters).

The cautiously optimistic news: interactive-device use by very young children doesn’t appear to be detrimental to learning in the ways noninteractive video is. If anything, this kind of screen time may (modestly) augment the learning process, though significant questions like “How much time per day on such a device is appropriate?” and “How do you tell a helpful app from a pointless one?” remain. You know, how do you accurately rate and contextualize applications aggressively marketed toward children? That strikes me as the greatest challenge rolling forward, especially if the research starts coming up roses for tablet and smartphone use by toddlers.