Toddlers on touch screens: parenting the 'app generation'
The first generation to use digital technology almost from birth are now toddlers. Parenting the 'app generation' involves handling new developmental challenges; experts say there are ways to strike a healthy balance when kids use touch screens.
Not long after Fang Chang bought his first iPad, he and his wife noticed something about their toddler son and the high-tech tablet: Kyle, then 2 years old, was not only fascinated by the device, but he was shockingly proficient with it.Skip to next paragraph
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"Within 10 minutes he was mastering it," Mr. Chang recalls. "He knew how to use the home button, how to open apps. It was amazing to us how quickly he was able to use it."
Chang was impressed, he says, but also cautious. Even living in the tech-happy San Francisco Bay Area of California, he was well aware of the reported dangers of "screen time" – that combination of television, computer games, videos, and touch screens that the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children under 2 avoid, and slightly older children limit.
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Still, he and his wife figured it was no use pretending the iPad didn't exist. It was everywhere, after all, and increasingly so – between 2010 and 2012, the number of iPad users in the United States jumped from 11.5 million to 54 million, with millions of others using the Kindle Fire, the Google Nexus, or Samsung Galaxy. Moreover, a 2011 Nielsen survey found that 8 out of 10 parents with a tablet let their under-12-year-old children use it, while the nonprofit Common Sense Media released a study that same year showing that 39 percent of all children ages 2 to 4 had used some sort of mobile touch-screen device at home, whether a smart phone, iPod Touch, or tablet.
"We took the attitude that these tablets are here to stay," Chang says. "This is the wave of the future. This is how kids are going to be interacting. But we wanted to teach him how to use the device in a healthy and meaningful way."
So they went online, looking for applications that would be both educational and rewarding for Kyle. But what they found troubled them, Chang recalls. There were hundreds of apps advertised as "educational" that seemed rote, passive, and unproductive. There were children's apps that tricked users into disclosing personal information. Others had advertisements, gender stereotypes, and violence.
Indeed, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found in 2012 that toddler and preschool apps were the fastest growing category of educational apps, and there is little, if any, regulation. And in 2012 the US Federal Trade Commission reported continuing privacy concerns with children's apps.
So Chang, a software developer and executive, just took matters into his own hands. He created Bookboard – a sort of virtual children's library, complete with a real, human librarian behind the literary selections. It is subscription-based, so it has no advertising.
"We want kids to understand – and parents to understand – that there are healthy uses of this device," Chang says.
As the number of touch-screen devices – smart phones and tablets – multiplies dramatically in American homes, so, too, do the arguments for and against these devices being placed in little toddler hands. According to a Nielsen survey, some 80 percent of tablet-owning parents let their young children use their devices; Babyshower.com found that 75 percent of moms regularly hand their smart phones to their toddlers. Apps for preschoolers is one of the fastest growing categories in the Apple Store. Some child-development experts are sounding an alarm about the effect of this new, interactive technology on young children, seeing it as a dangerous increase in "screen time," with various negative effects on development, while others see huge potential in an "app generation," in some areas even advocating an iPad for every preschooler.