A Parent Dilemma That Won’t Go Away: Toddlers Using Technology

Ads show infants and toddlers finger-swiping smartphones and tablets.

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Parents, as usual are caught in the middle. A recent article by Hannah Rosin–a Mom herself–looks into the dilemma facing parents. Called “The Touch-Screen Generation,” Rosin explores the choices that largely educated, middle and upper-middle class parents face when it comes to deciding whether their infants and toddlers should have the devices and, if so, for how long should they be swiping screens each day. (See four minute video in Rosin article).

On the dilemma facing parents and how much time children should be using devices for games, talking, and facing a screen, Rosin opts for parental judgment on a child-by-child basis. She does not see high-tech devices for toddlers as an enemy to be fought and conquered. She does not, however, speak to the plasticity of the brain and the capacities of new electronic devices altering how toddlers learn, what they retain, and the habits that children accrue.

About a year- and-a half ago, I posted my thoughts on the dilemmas parents face over  young children using devices.

I begin with the statement that, like teaching, there is no one best way of parenting. Good parenting comes in all sizes and colors.

Saying that, however, does little to help those parents who, surrounded by mind-altering noise hyping new technologies, face the persistent dilemma of deciding which high-tech devices they should allow their infants and toddlers to use. The value of having children handle devices and become with-it technologically competes with the value of active children playing and working with others and not passively watching television or playing the same game hours on end on gadgets. Values conflict. What should parents decide?

Parents have three choices in managing the dilemma of how much screen time and high-tech devices should their children use at home and at school. Doing nothing and going with the flow–acceding to their son’s or daughter’s request for the newest device is what many parents do. A second option is to make deliberate choices based on parents’ values–rules for television watching, ditto for cell phones and Wii. A third choice is to decide on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, combinations of these choices get made as children get older and parents experience untoward events (e.g., unemployment, divorce, illness, death).

Parents of infants, toddlers, and young children are faced with choices daily because of the array of screens that their children have access to as no other generation has had. Although I know this from reading articles and watching younger colleagues and friends raise their children, nonetheless, the facts of how much screen time young children spend with computers, television, and games still surprised me. From a 2005 study of 0-6 year year-olds:

“On a typical day, 75% of children watched television and 32% watched videos/DVDs, for approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes, on average. New media are also making inroads with young children: 27% of 5- to 6-year-olds used a computer (for 50 minutes on average) on a typical day. Many young children (one fifth of 0- to 2-year-olds and more than one third of 3- to 6-year-olds) also have a television in their bedroom.”

In 2011, a survey of parents reported that:

“[K]ids ages 2  through 5 watch more TV (including DVD and videos) than kids ages 6 through 11 do. And between the ages of 7 and 9, children shift to more interactive pastimes: 70% of 8-year-olds play video games, whereas less than half of 6-year-olds do…. Computers are accessed even more frequently with 85 % of parents reporting that their children use them. But the oldest medium we inquired about remains the favorite: 95% of 3-to-10 year-olds watch TV.”

What do professionals recommend? Like parents, professional opinion can be arrayed along a continuum. At one end are those teachers (e.g., Waldorf educators) and scholars (e.g.,  Jane Healy) who advocate little exposure for infants, toddlers, and young children. The Alliance for Childhood, a group of educators and parents, for example, published “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood” in 1999 (see researcher Doug Clements estimate of that publication– critique Fool’s Gold).

At the other end of the professional continuum on technology are those schools who have yet to meet a high tech device they didn’t adore. They buy up iPads as if it were Halloween candy. And in the middle are most early childhood educators who try to figure out what is best for infants, toddlers, and young children in a world where keeping up with changes in high-tech communication and information is nearly impossible.

Take the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC)–a group of educators and parents committed to the intellectual, psychological, emotional, physical, and creative growth of children. They published a position statement on technology in 1996. In 2010, a draft of a new position paper was published for comment (4-29-2011-1 ). They, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, urge parents (and teachers) to be thoughtful and deliberate in the use of high-tech devices that are matched to the age and intellectual and psychological development of the child.

So where are we in helping parents with young children and early childhood professionals decide what to do in the midst of new technologies aimed at young children as toys and learning machines much less school professionals buying iPads for preschoolers?  Spread across a continuum are groups and individuals who question any use for toddlers to those who urge thoughtful, case-by-case use, to those who queue up to buy the latest learning gadget.

The good news is that there are choices that parents can make if they know what they value and calculate the tradeoffs in making decisions–actually negotiating compromises among themselves and with their toddlers–on any one high-tech device; the bad news is that conflict-filled dilemmas in raising children have no solutions; they can be only managed again and again.

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “A Parent Dilemma That Won’t Go Away: Toddlers Using Technology

  1. Like many people who have an interest in technology use in education, I’ve observed enough screen interactions by children of all ages to put me firmly in the cautiously “thoughtful” section of the spectrum.

    The study below carried out for the UK’s Training and Development Agency into how teenagers in care use technology, ought to make anyone at the gung-ho end of the spectrum at least tread water, if not frantically back pedal. It makes for some of the most depressing reading in this field I have ever come across and draws a picture of children whose lives are almost entirely controlled by their technology addictions and crippled by their inability to understand the impact it has on them.
    http://www.carrick-davies.com/downloads/Munch_Poke_Ping_-_E-Safety_and_Vulnerable_Young_People_FULL_REPORT.pdf

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  3. I agree completely with you when you assert that there is no one best way to parent. I’ll go a bit further too and state that most ‘expert advice to parents’ is nonsense as it is based on an stupidly false assumption, specifically that observing that things that happen together implies causation; causation by the ‘things’ you thought you were manipulating. Wrong and wrong. WordPress and, indeed, the whole Internet is filled with articles that show convincing numbers indicating that ‘using iPads (or for that matter any silly toy) results in better outcomes,’ When, in fact, the conclusion that would have been valid would have been ‘students who have iPads also tend to do better.’

    Let me spell out what I suspect is the case: parents (and teachers) who care enough about their kids to sacrifice resources to purchase iPads and give of their time to ensure that the kids use them (a) are genetically and socially disposed to have kids who will provide the required outputs and (b) do the MANY OTHER actions that, together, produce the required outcomes. In truth, the iPad, book, digital interface or Cuisenaire rod (LOL!) is just a prop; a vehicle.

    So, my advice, for what it is worth to any parent or teacher is this: the best thing you can do as a parent or teacher is to plan well and to give freely of your time to your children. Whether the props you use are iPads, paper, books, sporting equipment or science equipment is of secondary value in the end.

    Oh, as as for the question of whether the kids will ‘lose out’ if they are not exposed early on I can add that (a) come on, the things designed to be so easy that a child can use them :>) and (b) do you actually think that as a parent you are the only source of these types in your kids lives?

  4. cafecasey

    Fantastic article. I smile, because my 5 year old son is amazing. He defeats my passwords and gets onto the iMac to play Disney and educational games. He didn’t like my play list on rdio and walked up to the laptop and muted it with a shortcut… When I was upgrading my phone, he walked up to the iPad and quickly found and started playing Angry Birds. Amazing–I don’t have an iPad. These guys are born into this stuff. Regardless of what the experts say–and I have had academic friends on both sides of this one–it’s just not going away. I think, for me, this has fallen under the “Common sense” category.

    As a professional myself, this is a big issue. As a high school teacher, I am lobbying for the effective use of technology both in underserved and progressive schools. I belong to an organization called the EdUnderground (http://www.edunderground.org), a rapidly growing movement in Rhode Island uniting ed-tech entrepreneurs and educators for the purpose of getting the right technology into the right classrooms to avoid that “buy up iPads and then do…what??” syndrome. Technology must be used effectively for maximizing learning–too often teachers new to technology get “app drunk.” It’s an exciting place to be–loaded with new apps and a world of possibilities. It’s important not to let the excitement outweigh the goals of the lessons. For me, when I started employing platforms and apps, I used three simple things–Learnist (where I curate and write multi-media lessons) a WordPress class blog, and Twitter. This allows me to create interactive lessons and then communicate about them, 24/7. Next year, I’m going to introduce parent contact platforms and formative assessment tools. These kids already know how to interact with all these things, just like my son.

    So, as a parent and a professional, I’ll make sure I use these gifts appropriately and I think I’ll be okay. Thoughts?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much, Cafecasey, for taking the time to comment and describe your five year old and your high school teaching.From your comments, what you want kids to learn comes first and then the question of which high tech devices and software help me reach those outcomes comes next. That makes sense to me. As for your son, you and your husband are making the choices along with that eager five year-old.

      • cafecasey

        True. But the five-year-old is a tough one. I think he might be a hacker in disguise. He’s probably working for the CIA.

      • larrycuban

        I like the thought of a five year-old hacker.

      • cafecasey

        Everyone likes that thought till he says, “Mommy, I defeated your password and played games while you were at work.” Those are the moments you dive for the computer, check your work email, and thank the deity you worship that he only targets cartoon characters.

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