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.
"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.
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.
All of this has left parents struggling to find a balance for raising what some call the touch-screen generation – those children born around the same time as the iPad, who are young enough to still be the full-time responsibility of adults but who also have a seemingly natural ability to scroll and swipe their way independently through the world via mobile devices. Few take their unease about the wave of new technology that has swept over American childhood as far as Chang, creating their own businesses to address the uncomfortable vision of one's toddler fixated, zombielike, on a flat rectangular screen. But whether they ban screen time completely or allow only educational apps, many moms and dads are trying to chart their own course through touch-screen parenting. Often, they feel they are on their own, making rules up as they go.
But the good news for parents is that even the staunchest critics of toddlers using tablets have ideas for how to best integrate technology into family life. While experts say there is no one-size-fits-all approach to touch screens, there are strategies agreed upon by most child advocates from all sides of the touch-screen divide about bringing up a healthy app generation.
Ask any group of caregivers about the rules governing preschoolers' use of touch screens and the concerns will be fairly similar. But the solutions are as varied as the people involved.
Kristen Chase, mom of four kids ages 2 through 9, as well as the publisher of the blogs coolmompicks.com and coolmomtech.com, uses a token system to let her children earn their "screen time." Cen Campbell, a children's librarian who has worked extensively on e-literacy and curates the book collection on Bookboard, does not let her toddler son watch TV, but allows the iPad for reading books. Patrick Eden helps his 5-year-old find information on a tablet about his latest scientific obsessions (this week, the solar system). David Belgard insists that his 6-year-old play educational games before turning to "Clash of Clans." Mary McFadden lets her 2-year-old granddaughter play a few carefully chosen apps on her phone, but the child's parents have a no-screen-time rule at home.
It is not always an easy line to walk for parents. The family iPad policy has joined politics and religion as one of those topics to be avoided at play dates, laden as it is with personal values, socioeconomics, and parental judgments. There is little conclusive research about the effects of this variety of screen time – after all, the iPad is only three years old. It can feel like a constantly shifting tightrope, with thousands of new apps and new technology flooding the marketplace.
"We call the tech talk the new sex talk," says Chase. "It's uncomfortable; it can be very scary. It is a conversation that needs to keep happening. You need to keep checking in."
Nate Belgard first used his parents' iPad when he was about 3 and was getting antsy at a restaurant, his father, David, recalls. Without thinking much about it, Mr. Belgard handed over the iPad for Nate to "draw" with "crayons" on the screen. It worked like a charm. Nate's parents ate in peace.
Ever since then, the iPad has been a regular presence in Nate's life. Although Belgard, a management consultant in Maryland, says that he and his wife, a psychologist, were keen on avoiding too much screen time, they also saw their son having a good time with the iPad – and learning. Not long after Nate started using the tablet, David downloaded a boatload of educational apps, including many using Montessori educational techniques. Eventually the Belgards came up with a rule: Before Nate could play other sorts of games, he needed to put in some time on the educational apps first.
The result is a happy kid, happy parents, and a new sort of together time. But also, says Belgard, it's fodder for creativity: "All those things that he does on the iPad, he ... combines them in his mind. He makes these entirely different games based on words – he talks about them, plays out scenarios."
Just recently, for instance, Nate made up a pretend iPad game that he named "Fire Dash." There is no "real" game, but he still asks his father to name favorite "characters," and the two go on "adventures" together, acting out the imaginary game.
But no matter how "educational" an app is, one of the big concerns among child-development experts about young children's use of touch screens is that apps can stunt creativity.
Rather than making up their own games, toddlers enter what scholar Diane Levin calls a "remote-controlled childhood," in which they react rather than create, and act out not their own imaginations but plot lines programmed by adults (often attempting to sell products).
"The app promotes instant responses, instant feedback," says Ms. Levin, who recently published a new book for teachers called "Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood: Teaching Young Children in the Media Age." "A child is being moved along by the program rather than being at the center of what happens."
But as the Belgards' experience shows, questions of technology and creativity depend on the child involved, as well as the setting. Lisa Guernsey, who wrote the book "Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child," suggests that parents think through what she has dubbed the "three Cs" in determining the cost or benefit of electronic media: content, or what is unfolding on the screen; context – who is with the child, what other games the child plays, even whether he went to bed on time and had a healthy dinner; and the child, as an individual.
"The individual child is going to understand media on his or her own terms," Ms. Guernsey says. "Every child is different. It's tempting to have a one-size-fit-all policy around media and its use with kids. As soon as you get down to reality, though, you think, 'is it the same with a 4-year-old with autism and a 3-year-old with verbal skills? Should two siblings have different policies while playing together? Is it different for kids in a neighborhood where Mom is worried about the safety of going outside to the playground?' "
The 'app gap' in how devices are used
Guernsey's last point about the playground raises a regularly ignored factor in debates over touch screens: digital inequity. Mobile technology such as the iPad is far from universal, even in the US. In its 2011 survey on children's digital media use, Common Sense Media found what it called an "app gap" – a new sort of digital divide separating wealthier children, who are likely to have access to mobile devices, from lower-income children, who are not.
At first glance, this would be enough to make some of the hand-wringing over technology use among children seem a bit elitist.
"We are rich enough to have iPads, and then rich enough to fret over whether they are benefiting our children," says Alison Scott, a professor at the College of William & Mary and mom of 4-year-old twins. (The twins, for the record, sometimes use an iPad but seem no more excited about it than any other toy.)
Increasingly, though, the divide between rich and poor is not about access to mobile devices, but in how they are used. Even in the past two years, smart phones and tablets have become far more accessible to lower-income children, either through family or school.
In households with annual incomes of less than $30,000, the number of cellphone users who use those devices to go online jumped 24 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. And although minorities and those with lower incomes still have less overall access to Internet technology, they're more likely than their wealthier white peers to use mobile devices as their main Web access. Seventy percent of African-American teens say they access the Internet on mobile devices; so do 66 percent of people living in households making less than $30,000 a year.
While only 20 percent of people in the lowest economic demographic own a tablet, 43 percent of people in households making less than $30,000 annually own a smart phone; as do 52 percent of households with an annual income between $30,000 and $49,900, according to a 2013 Pew Internet & American Life Project survey.
But even as technology spreads, low-income parents still tend to be less educated and less engaged when it comes to touch-screen media, experts say – a pattern mirrored in the situation with "old school" screens, such as TV.
Common Sense Media found that of lower-income parents, 38 percent said they don't know what an app is, compared with just 3 percent of higher-income parents. Only 14 percent of lower-income parents have ever downloaded an app for their children, compared with 47 percent of higher-income parents.
These figures motivate Mindy Brooks, director of education and research for digital media at the Sesame Workshop. Just as the TV show "Sesame Street" was created to help educate underprivileged preschoolers – and eventually connected children and parents across the economic spectrum – Ms. Brooks and her colleagues are trying to figure out how to best engage children and parents with the "new media" of the 2010s.
"We know that children learn even more and have much more rich experiences when a parent engages with them through the device," she says. "So we really, really want parents to co-engage. I know that's difficult when parents want a break and give the child the device to keep them occupied. But even then, you can ask questions about what they've learned."
Last month, Brooks and her colleagues released a new app called Sesame Street Family Play, which generates game ideas to play off-line. A parent answers a series of questions – telling Big Bird, for instance, that you are on a plane, have access to paper and pencil, and want to play with two children – and the app offers game ideas.
"We're trying to engage with the real world, and that's the way we're trying to push the technology forward," Brooks says.
iPads are as cuddly as books
That's how Ms. Campbell, the children's librarian, sees touch-screen technology working in her life as a parent and her work with parents.
"We see images with children interacting alone with the device," she says. "As a children's librarian, it's my mission to say that you can sit down and cuddle up with a child with an iPad. Mainstream media shows the iPad as a baby sitter. It doesn't have to be like that. It shouldn't be like that."
She reads regularly with her 4-year-old son, Jude, on the iPad and with old-fashioned books. One hasn't supplanted the other – the choice of paper or digital simply depends on his mood.
Another type of technology entering the children's app world, also claiming to promote increased "engagement," is called "augmented reality." This is the sort of technology that lets children use a touch-screen device to somehow alter the real-world environment – a "Sesame Street" app, for instance, in which Big Bird can read words when a child points the device at a food label in a grocery store.
Most of the new augmented-reality apps for young children, however, connect to existing commercial brands. The Barbie-augmented app allows children to see themselves with virtual makeup. Fisher-Price sells stuffed animals that "come to life" when a child attaches an iPhone. The Hot Wheels augmented app shows a child's car on the iPad racing along a fancy track rather than the boring old living-room floor.
"The child is no longer disappearing into the virtual," says Meredith Bak, a professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., who has studied children's toys. "But it brings up some key questions: What is the relationship to imagination? Are these apps supplementing a child's imagination, or ... supplanting it?"
Susan Linn, cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a scholar of children's play, worries about technology like this further taking over children's natural manipulation of their own environments. "If you watch kids waiting for a bus, waiting at a restaurant, waiting at a doctor's office, if they are not glued to a screen they make up their own play," she says. "They are making up songs; they are doing weird things with the carpet and their feet. They will play with whatever they have around them. And that's such an important skill: to generate something out of nothing."
Ms. Linn hopes that parents who decide to use touch-screen technology think carefully about whether the device actually adds something to their child's life that the child couldn't get elsewhere.
And that's exactly why Patrick Eden of Virginia is a fan of the iPad for his 5-year-old son, Hazen. Soon after Mr. Eden brought home his first iPad, the then-3-year-old was entranced. But Hazen wasn't interested in the kid apps that his dad downloaded. He wanted to use the iPad to gather more information about the various scientific subjects that he found fascinating. Eden, manager of a college bookstore, downloaded the Gray's Anatomy app (the textbook, not the TV show), thinking his son would quickly tire of it. He was wrong. Hazen spent hours and hours looking at the pictures.
"He's still just a regular kid, but he would quiz us on 'What's your favorite system of the body?'" Eden recalls. "I was like, 'Well, buddy, I haven't really thought about it."
The iPad for Hazen was, in many ways, a modern Encyclopædia Britannica, but one much cheaper and easier to hold for a toddler.
"All this stuff you hear about – like the iPad will make them antisocial or they won't want to do anything else – for us it hasn't been true at all," Eden says. "He loves going to the library. He loves going to bookstores – he'll just sit and read for the afternoon. He'll play with his cars. This is just one of his toys, albeit the one he's not allowed to treat roughly."