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For Infants and Toddlers in the Digital Age: Time with Adults Still Matters Most

March 12, 2013 | posted in: Family, Infants and Toddlers | comment

posted by: Michael Robb

When it comes to “screen time,” infants and toddlers have long been considered a special audience. Although several public health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, discourage any screen media for children under age 2, recent research suggests a disconnect between what pediatricians and advocacy groups recommend  and the reality of children’s home lives. The research, for example, finds a growing prominence of screen media in the lives of children under age 2.

Child development researchers and educators regularly point to the critical importance of the first years of life for children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. Unfortunately, researchers are just beginning to study how media use actually influences early development. As has been noted elsewhere, families have easy access to a variety of digital devices, each with its own set of affordances and usage patterns – including tablet computers, digital cameras, smartphones, and digitally enhanced toys. Yet most of the research to date has examined infants and toddlers’ exposure to television, and has been narrowly focused on small groups of children without taking into account the many contexts in which children are exposed to media (see The Future of Children for a summary). Although television research cannot answer all of our questions about how young children are likely to be affected by new technologies, it can offer some guidance.

Cognitively, children under age 2 are still learning to mentally represent their environment. Until around 18-24 months of age, children represent information and experiences through physical action. For example, when putting a toy block through a hole, an infant younger than 18 months would be unable to solve the problem internally through a mental representation, but could use physical actions such as trying out different blocks until he or she finds the right block that fits in the hole. By 24 months, children are better able to mentally represent objects (through language, play, and mental imagery) so they can solve problems without having to physically manipulate objects.

Instead of focusing on whether young children are able to learn their ABCs from an app, ask whether warm, language-rich interaction between young children and their caregivers is happening when they use digital media.

Learning from media can be particularly difficult for infants and toddlers because the various platforms are more demanding than physical reality: media offer images and video that play with time and space, placing greater strain on limited mental resources. Children may also find it more difficult to learn from television’s representations of real-world objects, which offer a much richer perceptual experience.  Studies with television have also found that it takes children under age 3 much longer to learn simple actions from televised images than from people.

Does that mean that there are no practical applications of digital media for young children? No, we may just be looking for learning in the wrong places. Instead of focusing on whether young children are able to learn their ABCs from an app, we should be looking at what child development research has been telling us all along and asking whether the warm, language-rich interaction between young children and their caregivers that is so critical for developing the cognitive, social, emotional, and linguistic skills children need for school and life success is happening when they use digital media. This exchange is where early learning is most likely to occur. The smartphones, computers, tablets, and digital cameras are already in children’s environments. That is not going to change. It is up to caregivers to find ways to appropriately use the digital objects that permeate young children’s lives.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center have compiled some examples on how to use technology tools and interactive media in age-appropriate, intentional ways. Although these examples are meant for early childhood programs, they are also relevant for families. Here are a few:

  • Use a digital camera or computer to show images and video of family, friends, animals, or events to children, especially when children might not otherwise have exposure to them. 
  • When reading an e-book, treat the experience the same as if you were using a print book: put the child in your lap, point to objects on screen, talk with the child, and introduce new vocabulary.
  • Allow children to play with play versions of technology or old computers or cellphones that don’t work anymore (with the batteries removed).
  • Video chat with a loved one.

While we wait for additional research, parents should remember that the most important part of the experience is not the technology itself, but the warmth and support of an adult play-partner.

Let’s keep the focus there.

Michael Robb's avatar

Michael Robb

Michael Robb, Ph.D. is director of education and research at the Fred Rogers Center where he oversees the Early Learning Environment™ (Ele). His research focuses on the impact of electronic media on young children’s language development, early literacy outcomes, and problem solving abilities.

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