Four-year-old Ian Rich and his 6-year-old brother, Jason, didn't watch TV (or use any screen media) until they were 2 1/2. After all, their father is Michael Rich, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. He knows that scientific evidence has shown that very young children don't benefit from screen time. However, now that the boys are older, Dr. Rich, a Parents advisor, is letting them test-drive his high-tech devices, and he's impressed by how quickly they master them. Recently, Ian figured out how to take pictures on his dad's iPhone—including some of his mom getting out of the shower.
"At least he hasn't figured out how to upload them to the Internet," says Dr. Rich. "Yet."
Yup, it's 2011, when most preschoolers don't know how to tie their shoelaces but they can understand—as if by osmosis—how to use the latest electronic gadget. Although we know that it's essential for our kids to be able to navigate the byways of our wired world in order to excel at school and beyond, it's hard not to be stunned by how technology seems to have taken over our lives.
A study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year found that school-age kids spend an average of 7 1/2 hours a day in front of a television, a computer, a smartphone, or another digital device. That's one hour and 17 minutes more than they did when the last study was done five years ago. The fact that most devices are mobile gives kids access in places they never had it before: on the school bus, in the doctor's waiting room, or on a drive to Grandma's. Although the Kaiser study involved 8- to 18-year-olds, anyone who has more than one child knows that little brothers and sisters not only follow in their older siblings' footsteps, they're barely a baby step behind.
"My girls are 12 and 4, and I'm astonished at how much more technology Elena, the younger one, has been exposed to," says Stephanie Deininger, of Redlands, California. "She's learning to read from websites like PBSkids.org and knows how to use a laptop, a DS, and an MP3 player nearly as well as her sister does. We set time limits, but there's no question that technology is the big draw and sometimes getting Elena to turn it off can be a battle."
Even babies may log an average of two hours of screen time per day, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under the age of 2 have no screen time at all. Last fall, in fact, the AAP urged all pediatricians to start asking parents about their child's technology usage at every well visit. "Digital media are as much a part of kids' lives as the air they breathe," says Dr. Rich. Whether this is good or bad is a moot point now—the real challenge is figuring out how to help our children benefit from high-tech tools while still making sure that they are playing and learning in the tried-and-true ways.
We've seen an explosion of media targeted at those very same infants and toddlers who aren't supposed to be watching—including TV shows, DVDs, digital books, and a huge array of software and portable gaming platforms. But given the choice, kids prefer to use Mommy's or Daddy's devices. "When my 20-month-old son, Isaac, gets antsy in a restaurant, my phone is a lifesaver," says Tricia Callahan, of Dayton, Ohio. In fact, 60 percent of the top-selling apps on iTunes target young children, according to a 2009 analysis by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, which studies the role of digital technologies in childhood literacy. (Parents offers its own line of apps, including Flash Cards, which teach colors, shapes, letters, and math.)
Two-year-old Madeline Horwitz, of East Amherst, New York, is another early adopter. Having mastered the iPhone apps her parents downloaded for her by the time she was 1, she was ready to tap and swipe the day her dad, Jeremy, brought home an iPad. "We're a high-tech family; we see it as an investment in our kids' future," says Horwitz, a technology journalist. Madeline's favorite apps include Duck Duck Moose's Baa Baa Black Sheep, Fisher Price's Little People, Shape Builder, and Montessorium Intro to Math. Says Horwitz, "The iPad is unusual—it's fun, educational, and portable. And there's no mess to clean up afterward!"
Experts who are worried about how immersed kids have become in interactive media point to studies linking heavy screen time to obesity, difficulty paying attention, an inability to make real-world friends, dulled imagination, low academic performance, and increased aggression. More important, they argue, digital technology robs kids of the hands-on creative play that's so essential for development. However, other experts and parents applaud the fact that technology makes learning fun and engages kids in exploring and problem-solving. In one study, researchers in Massachusetts, Texas, and Pennsylvania followed children from preschool through adolescence and found that those who'd watched small amounts of educational TV as preschoolers placed more value on achievement, read more books, and had higher grades as teens than those who watched entertainment TV at the same age.
"For kids under 2, however, the jury's still out," says Ellen Wartella, Ph.D., professor of communication and psychology at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. Most research has focused on the effects of TV and computer programs on kids preschool-age and up—and apps are just starting to be studied. A child may learn a letter that he sees on a phone app, much like he traces a letter on paper, says Dr. Wartella. "But we don't know yet if young kids learn anything from electronic media that they wouldn't learn otherwise, or what the long-term consequences are."
"Technology itself doesn't create problems," says Dr. Rich. "What matters is what we do with it." Just as you monitor the foods your kids eat, you should introduce quality media when they're ready, help them think about what they see and hear, and make sure they're not sacrificing time for homework, physical activity, family, or friends.
Especially when your kids are young, it's best to play or watch with them and discuss what they see. Sarah Kimmel, of Lehi, Utah, is a fan of "lapware," software designed for babies sitting in your lap. "Giggles Computer Funtime for Babies is simple and fun," she says. "We practice shapes, colors, letters, numbers." Giggles also gets a thumbs-up from educational psychologist Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review, which helps teachers, librarians, and parents find quality technology products for children. "It's something joyful that parents can do with their kids."
Research underscores the importance of one-on-one time for learning. A 2010 study, for example, found that when kids were read to by a parent—as opposed to watching a video in which a person read to them—the part of their brain that involves emotions and problem-solving lit up. "However, if you use technology with your child, he'll learn that it can be a collaborative tool," says Dr. Wartella. "You can nudge him along by stopping a video or a game and asking, 'What do you think will happen next?' or pointing out and labeling objects on the screen."
What makes a computer program, an app, or a TV show educational can be summed up in one word: content. "A well-designed program can improve literacy or math skills and boost school readiness no matter what format it?s delivered on," says Deborah Linebarger, Ph.D., director of the Children's Media Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Software should be tailored to their developmental stage and have a simple story line (no flashbacks or cutaways). It also needs characters with whom kids can connect, as well as lots of repetition, and it should let a child move at her own pace.
Of course, it's also wise to shield young children from scary or violent media and overly commercial products. "Children under 7 can't always differentiate between fantasy and reality," says Liz Perle, editor-in-chief and cofounder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that helps parents better understand technology and its effect on kids. "Little kids learn from what they see and imitate it. So if a character on screen bops someone on the head, you may well see that same behavior in your living room."
Even experts who are skeptical about younger children's growing media use recognize its value. Simply knowing how to use a computer translates into academic confidence. Simulation software and multimedia encyclopedias open windows (no pun intended) for students that weren't available even five years ago. Want to watch butterflies emerge from their chrysalis? Find out why Pluto is no longer a planet? A few clicks takes you inside the American Museum of Natural History to ask why.
Learning how to live in a high-tech world effectively, safely, and responsibly is a task we need to start teaching children earlier than ever. "As kids explore social networking sites such as Club Penguin or KidSwirl, parents must visit these sites with their child and monitor all chats," says Perle. "Make sure you choose from age-appropriate games, since many have sexual or violent content as well as commercial characters embedded in them." By age 7, children begin to understand that commercials try to get them to want to buy things—so talk about how to be a smart media consumer.
Like all parents, Dr. Rich is doing his best to stay on top of his sons' digital exploits. Recently, he reports, Ian took a picture of his mom sleeping and installed it as the wallpaper on his dad's iPhone. "Now this one's a keeper," he says.
Only three out of ten kids ages 8 to 18 say that their parents set limits on their media use and stick to them, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation study. It's easier to establish boundaries when your child is 2 than 12, so take these steps now.
Unplug yourself. Is the TV always on, even when no one is watching? Do you take your smartphone to the dinner table? You don't have to go cold turkey; just set a good example by limiting your tech time and using those free moments to be with your family.
Fire the electronic babysitter. Don't flip a switch whenever the kids are bored or you need a break. "When the TV is off, I'm 'on'—and that can be hard when I have a lot to do," admits Stephanie Deininger. "But my 4-year-old has a tough time entertaining herself." So Deininger keeps the computers in one location—the den, which she's converted into a media room. "If Elena doesn't see the computer, it's less tempting."
Develop healthy media habits early. Just because your kid can play with your iPad for hours doesn't mean he should. Watching a video on a two-hour car ride won't do any harm, but if you hand him a digital device every time you get in the car, he'll have a meltdown if he doesn't get that electronic fix. For toddlers and preschoolers, 20 to 30 minutes of screen time twice a day (all screens, not just TV) is plenty, says Dr. Michael Rich.
Teach how technology can aid learning. "What the World Book was to earlier generations, Google is today," says Dr. Ellen Wartella. Still, some experts are concerned that it provides instant information without any creative problem-solving. "We need to show our kids how to take advantage of Google but teach the importance of critical-thinking skills."
Be skeptical. If a program is billed as educational, that doesn't necessarily mean it is. Check for recommendations from trusted sources such as Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) and The Center on Media and Child Health (cmch.tv).
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of Parents magazine.