Toddlers and Tablets

A relative recently told me about her year-old granddaughter's first three words. "She can say 'mama,' 'dada' and 'iPad', "she reported. Have iPads become the new "babas"?

Certainly iPads and similar tablet devices has become far more ubiquitous in young children's lives than ever. In a Fall 2013 study, Common Sense Media reported that while only 8% of American families with children between the ages of 0-8 had some kind of tablet in 2011, just two years later about 40% did. And not surprisingly, because they are more present in homes, tablets are used more frequently by very young children. In fact, both the frequency of use and the amount of time spent using these devices went way up in just two years' time. The "more than one hour of use per day" figure from 2013 cited in this study probably underreports the amount of time toddlers are spending on tablets.

But is there any reason to be alarmed about the five-fold increase in toddlers using this technology?

Tablet computers have actually been around a long time, the first publicly demonstrated system debuting in 1956. But they didn't start being manufactured or distributed widely until years later. PalmPilot first came out in 1996, Microsoft's Pocket PC in 2000 and the iPad in 2010. Academic research, which always lags considerably behind market trends, hasn't yet caught up. There's not a lot out there to help us understand what kinds of effects interactive technologies like tablets might have on young children. And what's very important to keep in mind is that regardless of whether we're thinking about the potential negative effects or the possible positive ones, you can find published suggestions about both in articles but hardly any actual published research exists to document this area, at all.

For example, you can read about concerns that using this type of technology could in some way make toddlers more "distracted" and less in tune with the social cues around them. ABC News reported on an experiment conducted at Barnard College's Center for Toddler Development in which researchers gave children iPads, allowed them to play with them and then called the childrens' names to see how readily they responded. The report on stated that "Many of the kids were so zoned in on the apps they were playing with, they didn't respond to the researchers at all." But we don't know that this was anything other than the reporters' interpretation of what happened since no figures or any real data were reported.

Similarly, there seems no real data showing that screen time on tablets in any way damages children's eyesight, though this has been a concern mentioned in the popular press. And although you can find occasional stories with alarming headlines like, "Doctors Raise Red Flags: Young Children Should Avoid Using Tablets," closer examination of most of these stories show that reporters have relied on sources like a single physical therapist who suggests that using a tablet might not strengthen a child's developing muscles as much as other types of activities. This particular story, which appeared on a CBS affiliate website, was not based on any study data. There was no large or representative sample, no method, and no control group.

There have not yet been any published studies documenting what might be happening in developing brains when toddlers use tablets, though we do know that the first few years of life is the time during which synapses (those connections that give the brain the ability to pass along signals to other parts of the body) increase most rapidly.

Elsewhere in the popular press and the parenting blogosphere, you can find concerns that toddlers who use tablets will come to expect a certain degree of visually exciting entertainment in all forms of interaction (interestingly, the concern that has always been evinced with every form of media from the introduction of comic books to film to radio to television to computers and beyond). You can read of fears that perhaps toddlers given tablets to appease themselves will not learn how to calm themselves without a touch screen in front of them, or that babies with tablets won't learn how to interact properly in face to face communication with humans. But there's no research to support any of these fears, at least not yet.

Now it is true that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently released its newest recommendations on screen time for young children, and stated that they continue to "discourage" any screen time for all children younger than two. But what is interesting is that many pediatricians are beginning to make a distinction between passive screen time, like watching television, and interactive screen time, like using a tablet.

And in fact, the little research that has been published so far seems to show that if anything, there can be positive and educational gains for toddlers who use tablets.

Though not a published study, Sarah Vaala wrote a piece for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center about how many teachers working with students with a variety of disabilities are finding that the iPad and similar devices offer many advantages and opportunities for learning and growth. "Their myriad unique affordances allow iPads to be used in a meaningful way with students who have complex cognitive, behavioral, and physical disabilities; that use then manifests itself in the advancement of a variety of skills targeted in students' education plans." But these impressions of teachers working with students need to be studied systematically and with much larger samples.

Heather Kirkorian and colleagues have done some interesting research with infants and toddlers which possibly points to the ability of interactive technology such as touch screen tablets to improve a toddler's word-learning capability. This seemed to be especially true of the younger children in their sample (24-30 months). The researchers speculated that perhaps touch screens with their interactive capabilities help to draw a child's attention to relevant information. But they don't know for sure.

Kirkorian and Tiffany Pempek also recently summarized the state of research on toddlers and tablets. Perhaps most importantly, they suggest that because tablets are interactive technologies that most very young children seem able to master quickly, there is the potential that more learning can occur than from traditional video screens that are not interactive. They arrived at this hypothesis based on the results of three studies. One showed that babies were better able to perceive speech sounds from a language other than their own when using a touch screen; another found that toddlers were better able to imitate an experimenter's actions when using a touch screen device than when they simply watched the actions on a passive screen; and a third demonstrated that toddlers performed better on a hide and seek task when it was on an interactive touch screen than when the same task was seen on a video.

Kirkorian and Pempek show us that there is a lot of potential for toddlers using tablets. But, as they caution us, there's still a lot more that we need to learn. There's a lot more that we don't yet know than what we do. Research about this topic is just as young as the kids it is studying.