Earlier this month, my two-year-old walked up to our TV screen, placed his hand on it, and attempted to swipe the image from right to left.
Needless to say, it didn’t work. Our television isn’t a touchscreen. (Neither is Gigi’s camera, another be-screened item he’s tried to swipe.) And while my son didn’t think twice about his flick of the wrist, it made my husband and I wonder: Just how are our iPhones and iPad rewiring that tiny, impressionable brain?
We’d love to consult the experts or some studies, but there’s been surprisingly little research about the developmental effects of touchscreens on younger children. That’s due in large part to the devices’ newness. As recently as 2011, just 8 percent of households with kids under 8 had a tablet, according to a survey by Common Sense Media (CSM).
Times, are changing, however—and changing quickly. By 2013, just two years later, 40 percent of those same households owned a tablet. In 2017, that number ballooned to 78 percent (and 95 percent of families own a smartphone.) And even the littlest kids have begun getting into them; CSM found that 46 percent of children under age 2 used touchscreens in 2017, up from 38 percent in 2013 and 10 percent in 2011.
As touchscreen ownership becomes an inevitability—your own grandchild may have received one for Christmas—so does the need for answers, especially to one key question: How do we make the best of this?
What We DO Know
Much of what we know about touchscreens and babies, toddlers, and preschoolers comes from research about media in general, particularly television. We know that excessive time in front of a screen—any screen—takes away from more valuable, face-to-face interaction, which is key to cognitive development. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises creating "screen-free" areas in your home, and “for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.”
We know the jury is out on the educational benefits of simply handing a young child a touchscreen. On one hand, a study of babies and toddlers from Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York found, "There was no significant difference in testing scores between children [age 0-3] who used touchscreen devices [to play educational games] compared with children who did not use these devices." What's more, kids who played non-educational touchscreen games, "actually had lower verbal test scores upon testing," suggesting that mindless gaming may actually detract from development.
On the other hand, we know that iPads, Nexuses, and Galaxies can be powerful learning tools when used in certain, constructive ways. "I think people tend to think of tablets as socially isolating, but if you put two, three, four kids in a room, they will gather around the touchscreen," says Dr. Michael Robb of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. "And if the teacher uses a tablet as part of a lesson, you better believe kids are crowding."
Finally, we know that what best determines a child's experience with a touchscreen isn't necessarily what he does with it, but how he does it. And that's where you come in, Grandma.
Make the Best Out of Toddlers and Touchscreens
To promote responsible tablet use and maximize potential for positive interaction, including attaining educational goals, adult participation is key. Dr. Robb notes a few key strategies:
Dr. Robb emphasizes, that sometimes, we have to relax. "I don't think there's one way to interact around digital," he says.
Resources You’ll Love
Happily, there are a variety of resources to further guide you and your grandchild. In December 2014, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center published Family Time with Apps: A Guide to Using Apps with Your Kids, an excellent guide to constructive touchscreen use with children; it even includes a part on fostering long-distance relationships. The Fred Rogers Center and Common Sense Media are both aimed at promoting healthy connections between media and young kids. And finally, Dr. Robb suggests Toca Boca, which has, "very high-quality apps, and kids like them, though they don't necessarily teach the alphabet. They lend themselves to different types of play."
Ultimately, the effects of touchscreens on young children won't be known for years, and maybe even decades. In the meantime, it's important to remember that kids will benefit most when an adult is guiding them. Simply: They'll get what you give.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.