Attention Parents: Tots + Tech Doesn’t Have to Equal Worry

This summer, my husband brought home an iPad as a surprise gift for our son’s fourth birthday. I found myself looking at the tablet with a mix of excitement and foreboding. I had many questions. Should my son be using an iPad at age four? Will all those fun apps ruin his attention span for other activities? At the same time, I wondered, if he’s not using the iPad now, when he’s older will he be left in the dust by more tech-savvy peers.

But after watching “Tots + Tech,” the latest episode of iQ:Smartparent from WQED Pittsburgh’s public television station, I took a deep breath and felt myself relax. The episode features solid research, parent-to-parent discussion, and tips from host Angela Santomero—creator of shows like Blue’s Clues, SuperWhy, and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood—to help concerned parents like me navigate the confusing world of technology and digital media for our youngest children, ages eight and under.

Certainly there are reasons for concern. “Tots +Tech” cites a 2011 survey by Common Sense Media showed books are taking a backseat to television and DVDs among babies and toddlers, the group for whom such passive forms of media are considered most inappropriate. The youngest children were spending an average of 53 minutes a day watching television or DVDs and only 29 minutes being read to. (Since “Tots + Tech” first aired, 2013 survey results show that while the amount of time under-twos spend on TV has remained the same since 2011, on average they now spend only 19 minutes a day being read to. And kids have much greater access to mobile devices than ever before.)

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also recently released new guidelines recommending parents plan their children’s media use, model a healthy “media diet” and watch media along with their children. While the new guidelines continue to discourage media use for children under age two, they also recognize media can be used for educational and prosocial purposes. In line with the AAP’s new recommendations that pediatricians discuss children’s media use annually with parents, the “Tots + Tech” episode features noted family physician Deborah Gilboa facilitating conversations among parents about media use and young children, even children under two. It’s reassuring to hear other parents marvel at their children’s capacity for technology—one parent noted her child unlocked her cell phone at 12 months&mdashmdash;and express their worries about what screen time does to imaginative play.

You don’t have to be a tech expert for your child to get the most out of media. Just talk with them. Interact. That’s where the learning happens.

The experts featured in “Tots + Tech” agree there are common-sense strategies parents can use to address such concerns. “You don’t have to be a tech expert for your child to get the most out of media,” says Michael Robb, our director of education and research. “Just talk with them. Interact. That’s where the learning happens.” Robb highlights the Fred Rogers Center’s online community, Ele, as a place to find e-books and other media that promote that kind of quality interaction between adults and children. Read more in Robb’s post “For Infants and Toddlers in the Digital Age: Time with Adults Still Matters Most.”

Early childhood media expert Lisa Guernsey points to research showing that kids learn the most from social interactions with other people. “How we use media to promote those interactions is most important,” she says. The episode makes it clear that media can be part of those interactions, but it can’t replace them.

Media can harm children’s attention when it is left on as background noise, notes researcher Deborah Linebarger of the University of Iowa. “It distracts kids,” she says. “Even if it doesn’t look like they are paying attention, they are.” Research shows today’s kids are exposed to nearly four hours of background TV daily.

At key points during the episode, Santomero highlights important ideas by distilling them into “clues” that give viewers quick takeaways. Perhaps the most important clue I took away from the episode was this: Don’t leave the TV on when no one is watching it. And don’t watch news or adult media while young children are around. But you’ll have to watch the show to catch the other clues for yourself.

Whenever parents are assessing whether media is appropriate for their children, Guernsey offers three Cs as a guide:

·      Content—What are children viewing and learning as they watch or play?

·      Context—When are children using media in their daily routines? How is using this affecting their mealtime, naptime or bedtime? Is the child fully attending to the screen, preferably with an adult, or is it background noise?

·      Child—How is this affecting your particular child? Guernsey notes one of her children would get much more upset by screen images than the other. My son doesn’t like to watch anything scary, even kid-level scary, on TV, so we don’t.

Armed with the three Cs and Angela Santomero’s clues, I came away from the episode more confident about having a good time with my son as we explore our new iPad and more prepared to face whatever new challenges the digital world brings us down the road.

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