Babies, Toddlers and Touch-Screen Time

Photo credit: lynnmarentette via Flickr.

Photo credit: lynnmarentette via Flickr.

I just finished reading a very interesting (and very long) article in The Atlantic called “The Touch-Screen Generation.” As with all interesting links I find on Facebook, I shared it with my friends. I got a few commenters – none of whom had read the article, but chimed in with pride on limiting their own children’s screen time.

I’m the same way. I’ve been adamant, even vocal, in my opinion on limiting screen time for my own son since he was born. He doesn’t watch Nick Jr, Yo Gabba Gabba, or Sponge Bob. There’s no ambient, background television in our house. We don’t have cable, so you have to really want to watch something and we wait until the Monster has gone to bed to do that. My son doesn’t play with an iPad or iPhone, unless he’s grabbed my phone and is attempting to send text messages or FaceTime my mom. (Which has actually happened. Smart little buggers, aren’t they?)

I was prepared to read the piece in The Atlantic and have more ammunition for my soap box. But if you stick it out and read all FOUR pages of the article, you might come out of it a little less sure of that position, and maybe a little less guilty feeling for those “rare” moments when you just need your kid to stop screaming for 5 minutes so you can call the cable company and figure out when exactly they expect to get the internet working again, because OMG you’re like, dying here.

And since I know most of us are choosing between sleep and educating ourselves for our children, I’ll attempt to assuage your guilt in choosing sleep and give you what I thought were the highlights.

Rosin, the author, sticks mainly to touch screens, and there’s a ton of great background info on screen time research if you’re just looking into it. But I’m assuming that I’m talking to all the other mommies like me who’ve read study after study, article after article about how screen time takes away from time spent developing gross and fine motor skills and that babies who watch baby DVDs actually know less words than babies who don’t.

“Her answer so surprised me that I decided to ask some of the other developers who were also parents what their domestic ground rules for screen time were. One said only on airplanes and long car rides. Another said Wednesdays and weekends, for half an hour. The most permissive said half an hour a day, which was about my rule at home. At one point I sat with one of the biggest developers of e-book apps for kids, and his family. The toddler was starting to fuss in her high chair, so the mom did what many of us have done at that moment—stuck an iPad in front of her and played a short movie so everyone else could enjoy their lunch. When she saw me watching, she gave me the universal tense look of mothers who feel they are being judged. “At home,” she assured me, “I only let her watch movies in Spanish.” [I love this sketch of parents on screen time allowance. It's so accurate.]

“Previously, young children had to be shown by their parents how to use a mouse or a remote, and the connection between what they were doing with their hand and what was happening on the screen took some time to grasp. But with the iPad, the connection is obvious, even to toddlers. Touch technology follows the same logic as shaking a rattle or knocking down a pile of blocks: the child swipes, and something immediately happens. A “rattle on steroids,” is what Buckleitner calls it. “All of a sudden a finger could move a bus or smush an insect or turn into a big wet gloopy paintbrush.” To a toddler, this is less magic than intuition. At a very young age, children become capable of what the psychologist Jerome Bruner called “enactive representation”; they classify objects in the world not by using words or symbols but by making gestures—say, holding an imaginary cup to their lips to signify that they want a drink. Their hands are a natural extension of their thoughts.”

“For toddlers, however, the situation seems slightly different. Children younger than 2 and a half exhibit what researchers call a “video deficit.” This means that they have a much easier time processing information delivered by a real person than by a person on videotape. In one series of studies, conducted by Georgene Troseth, a developmental psychologist at Vanderbilt University, children watched on a live video monitor as a person in the next room hid a stuffed dog. Others watched the exact same scene unfold directly, through a window between the rooms. The children were then unleashed into the room to find the toy. Almost all the kids who viewed the hiding through the window found the toy, but the ones who watched on the monitor had a much harder time.”

“A few years after the original puppy-hiding experiment, in 2004, Troseth reran it, only she changed a few things. She turned the puppy into a stuffed Piglet (from the Winnie the Pooh stories). More important, she made the video demonstration explicitly interactive. Toddlers and their parents came into a room where they could see a person—the researcher—on a monitor. The researcher was in the room where Piglet would be hidden, and could in turn see the children on a monitor. Before hiding Piglet, the researcher effectively engaged the children in a form of media training. She asked them questions about their siblings, pets, and toys. She played Simon Says with them and invited them to sing popular songs with her. She told them to look for a sticker under a chair in their room. She gave them the distinct impression that she—this person on the screen—could interact with them, and that what she had to say was relevant to the world they lived in. Then the researcher told the children she was going to hide the toy and, after she did so, came back on the screen to instruct them where to find it. That exchange was enough to nearly erase the video deficit. The majority of the toddlers who participated in the live video demonstration found the toy.”

“In late 2010, Ovemar and Jeffery began working on a new digital project for Bonnier, and they came up with the idea of entering the app market for kids. Ovemar began by looking into the apps available at the time. Most of them were disappointingly “instructive,” he found—“drag the butterfly into the net, that sort of thing. They were missing creativity and imagination.” Hunting for inspiration, he came upon Frank and Theresa Caplan’s 1973 book The Power of Play, a quote from which he later e-mailed to me:

What is it that often puts the B student ahead of the A student in adult life, especially in business and creative professions? Certainly it is more than verbal skill. To create, one must have a sense of adventure and playfulness. One needs toughness to experiment and hazard the risk of failure. One has to be strong enough to start all over again if need be and alert enough to learn from whatever happens. One needs a strong ego to be propelled forward in one’s drive toward an untried goal. Above all, one has to possess the ability to play!”

“In her excellent book Screen Time, the journalist Lisa Guernsey lays out a useful framework—what she calls the three C’s—for thinking about media consumption: content, context, and your child. She poses a series of questions—Do you think the content is appropriate? Is screen time a “relatively small part of your child’s interaction with you and the real world?”—and suggests tailoring your rules to the answers, child by child. One of the most interesting points Guernsey makes is about the importance of parents’ attitudes toward media. If they treat screen time like junk food, or “like a magazine at the hair salon”—good for passing the time in a frivolous way but nothing more—then the child will fully absorb that attitude, and the neurosis will be passed to the next generation.

“The war is over. The natives won.” So says Marc Prensky, the education and technology writer, who has the most extreme parenting philosophy of anyone I encountered in my reporting. Prensky’s 7-year-old son has access to books, TV, Legos, Wii—and Prensky treats them all the same. He does not limit access to any of them. Sometimes his son plays with a new app for hours, but then, Prensky told me, he gets tired of it. He lets his son watch TV even when he personally thinks it’s a “stupid waste.” SpongeBob SquarePants, for example, seems like an annoying, pointless show, but Prensky says he used the relationship between SpongeBob and Patrick, his starfish sidekick, to teach his son a lesson about friendship. “We live in a screen age, and to say to a kid, ‘I’d love for you to look at a book but I hate it when you look at the screen’ is just bizarre. It reflects our own prejudices and comfort zone. It’s nothing but fear of change, of being left out.”

The ending of the article is interesting and a little familiar. Rosin decides to take Prensky’s approach and gives her toddler free reign with her iPad. He is obsessed with it for approximately a week-and-a-half, and then it goes by the wayside, falling into disfavor, like so many toddler toys, picked up periodically but not more than any other toy.

Which begs the question, do we exacerbate the obsession by creating a forbidden fruit situation? Or are we correct in lumping the touch screen in with the passive television screen?

I hope you’ll take the time to read the full article. It’s definitely worth it.

Personally, I think I’ll be looking into some of the apps Rosin references in her article. Cautiously.

What do you think? Does this article make you rethink your stance on screen time? 


  1. One of the things that resonated with me most about the article was the description of the author seeing her toddler playing with a touch screen and recognizing that a large part of her cringing reaction was purely the “they grow up too fast!” feeling that any parent recognizes when their child does something that seems to foreshadow their inevitable growth/adulthood. I appreciated the balanced approach she took in trying to sort out the potential developmental benefits of touchscreens, and I’ll admit that I haven’t honestly considered the completely different potential touchscreens have versus tv and more passive screen experiences, which there is more research on. That was definitely important food for thought, and the experiments she shared were enlightening.

    I have to say, watching my 2-month old baby master the “swiping” motion on our phones (which she rarely is allowed hands on!) based mostly on observance of us using our devices (they are watching us much closer than we even realize!) was a moment of equal awe and fear — there’s something powerful there, and as with most powerful things, I fall under the assumption that too much of a powerful thing, and no control, is probably not a good thing. In other words, moderation is where I would naturally tend to fall. But the description of the toddler being allowed to go through typical toy obsession patterns with the iPad — want it, obsessed with it, and ultimately bored/abandoned — made me reconsider.

  2. I was really nervous about the ipad when my 2 year old started wanting to play with it (and I started letting her). I found some really great apps though, and her puzzle, memory and hand coordination skills have improved dramatically because of some of them. Two different interactions with the iPad gave me peace about the obsession I feared could come from letting her use it….

    I had to go to a meeting and we practice “blanket time” where she stays on the blanket and plays quietly. I took books, dolls, a puzzle and some other toys and threw the iPad in there as a fail-safe. She knew I had the iPad with us. I gave her a choice in toys. I thought that having the ipad with us would guarantee that she’d be on that thing the whole time. She chose it second, and after a while, handed it back to me and whispered “I’m done Mommy.” Without giving her limits, she treated it as any of the other toys and rotated through them fairly equally. I was pleasantly surprised. We repeated this same meeting/blanket time/toy option again a few weeks later and it was the same. It’s made me feel more comfortable that she isn’t obsessed with it and maybe that’s because I haven’t been obsessive about it either.

    I think one of the coolest things I’ve seen her do on the ipad is learn to trace letters. When she first started (it’s an Elmo app that shows you how to trace) she would “color” them in all scribble scrabble. But in a short time, she’s learned to trace them, stay fairly in the lines and follow the direction the app gives on the exact way to trace. It’s amazing.

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