What Parents and Care Providers Need to Know When Choosing Tech For Young Children

Experts in media and young children agree; how the youngest children use technology—ideally, with caregivers and with an eye on their learning and development—is more important than how old they are when they start.

It’s the latest in baby gear, and it’s got everybody talking. The Fisher-Price iPad Apptivity Seat is a reclining baby seat with a toy bar and a seven-inch mirror, with the option to slip an iPad into the mirror case and show apps and videos to a child too young to sit up straight. When asked for their reactions to the device at a recent panel, three experts in child development and digital media responded with words like “lunacy” and “horror.”

OK, that’s bad. But how young is too young for technology? Is some technology better for young children than others? Kristin Anderson Moore, former president of Child Trends, led developmental psychologist Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, author Lisa Guernsey, and Sesame Workshop vice president Rosemarie Truglio in an insightful discussion of these questions as part of annual lecture series at Child Trends, a Maryland-based research center. You can watch it here.

Parents can ask themselves questions like: What is my child seeing or playing with here? How does using this media fit into our daily routine? Who is with or around my child—parents, siblings, friends—while using media?

If you’re a parent of an infant or toddler, you may want to jump in at minute 31:35 to catch a key question: Is there an age cutoff when a child is simply too young for digital media?

Not necessarily, say these panelists. Instead, what’s most important is how a child is using technology.

In her book, Guernsey offers a helpful lens through which to look at children’s media experiences—“the three C’s”—content, context, and child. Parents can ask themselves questions like: What is my child seeing or playing with here? How does using this media fit into our daily routine? Who is with or around my child—parents, siblings, friends—while using media?

Children “aren’t getting much out of [media] before age two” anyway, noted Hirsh-Pasek. She cited research showing children don’t learn much from television before age two to two and a half. And because interactive technologies like tablets and apps are so new, there is little research to date about what children can learn from them. But if parents are using media with even very young children in interactive, age-appropriate ways, such as looking at family photos on a tablet or cell phone, reading a simple e-book, Skyping with faraway relatives, or learning songs and nursery rhymes together, “then I think it’s terrific,” she said. In this recent post on our blog, Hirsh-Pasek wrote that the digital media experiences that are most likely to help a young child learn share four key qualities: they’re active, engaged, meaningful, and interactive.

In the position statement the Fred Rogers Center co-authored with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, we find that children get the most from technology when it’s used intentionally and in ways that are appropriate for each child’s age, stage of development, and personal interests and needs. We recommend that if children younger than 2 years of age use media it should support interactions between children and their caregivers because we know from the research this is how infants and toddlers learn best.

Last fall the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its guidelines from an outright ban on digital exposure to discouraging exposure for children under age two. More importantly, the AAP encouraged parents to make a plan for media usage, model a healthy “media diet,” and watch media with their children.

Guernsey and Truglio both noted that parents and teachers need better guidance and support to enhance children’s learning through digital media. Guernsey pointed to recent research showing that when early educators received not just new technology, but well-structured curriculum and professional development showing them how to use it, their students made significant math gains. “There’s not a lot of that kind of [professional development] out there,” she observed. “That’s where the field has to move.”

As the discussion drew to a close, Hirsh-Pasek made an observation that really hit home for me as a parent. “We’re constantly on our digital platforms, whether on a cell phone or an iPad. Often we have our eyes glued on something other than them,” she said, reflecting on what children learn from their parents’ media use. “We’re giving them the message, ‘I don’t want to be in conversation with you.’ If humans are about learning in the social soup…breaking that and interrupting it with our use of media is another problem to think about.”

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