To those parents grappling with how to best integrate touch-screen technology into their young children's lives, a number of child-development experts propose a more fundamental question: Is it necessary, really, to have your toddler swiping at an iPad or an Android device at all?
Many advocates for young children, including groups such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Alliance for Childhood, suggest that the answer is quite often "No."
These organizations are not anti-technology – indeed, they point out studies showing that for children over 3 years old, some exposure to thoughtfully constructed media can be beneficial. But they warn that the growing use, and misuse, of touch-screen technology among young children is getting in the way of other sorts of play – the developmental bread and butter of childhood.
"The new media doesn't replace the old media" such as television or computer games, says Susan Linn, a children's therapist and cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "We know that time with screens takes babies and children away from hands-on creative play, active play, and face-to-face time with adults."
Looking at a screen cannot replace that sort of engagement with the world, Ms. Linn and others say – even when the applications involved are marketed as "educational."
Toddlers, for instance, learn a tremendous amount by tactile doing, says Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. A child drawing a picture, for instance, is not simply learning how to put an image on a page but is discovering the feel of the crayon, the change resulting from how hard the crayon is pushed into the paper, the fact that wax does not taste particularly good, and even the reality that drawing on paper is usually deemed acceptable but walls are off limits.
All of this, as much as the actual picture, sparks toddlers' development and creativity.
Earlier this year, Linn's group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Fisher-Price and Open Solutions for what it said was false and deceptive marketing of its baby apps as "educational." Although it's more difficult to take similar action against "educational" games for older kids, Linn and others say parents should be wary.
But the potential problems with touch screens do not stop at what they are not. The FTC found that 60 percent of children's apps gather information about the user, sometimes including geographical location. Apps built around known, licensed media characters often manipulate children into either buying more material online or products in stores. Many apps, children's advocates say, train toddlers to expect instant gratification – the puzzle piece fits and the screen explodes in color and music.
Handing the phone or tablet to children to keep them busy during an airplane or car ride has its drawbacks, Linn says – even as she is sympathetic to the need of parents for a break.
"The problem with starting kids out young, with every time they have to amuse themselves they're handed a screen, is that they never have the opportunity to develop the inner resources to amuse themselves," Linn says. "I think we need to bring back boredom. The experience of having nothing to do is critical to creativity."