5 Things to Know about Tots and Technology

Research BriefEarly ChildhoodJul 15 2014
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that screen media exposure be limited for all children and discouraged for those under age two. That recommendation applies to the 12 million infants and toddlers in the U.S. Yet nearly 66 percent of children under two have watched television, with 30 percent of children under two watching daily. And, 38 percent of children under two have ever used a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet, up from only 10 percent in 2011. Moderated by Kristin Anderson Moore–Child Trends’ senior scholar–research and media experts Kathy Hirsh-PasekLisa Guernsey, and Rosemarie Truglio tackled issues related to young children’s technology use in December 2013, at the Kristin Anderson Moore Lecture, “Too Young for Technology.”
Based on that discussion, here are five things parents and early care providers should know about tots and technology use:

1Technology is rapidly changing, and research is still catching up.

There has been considerable research in the field of children’s media use, but relatively new platforms and fast adoption rates mean that research needs time to catch up. Case in point: Apple launched the first iPad in 2010, and today, 40 percent of families with children under eight own a tablet. According to Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, we don’t know a lot about relationships between children’s brain development and digital platforms, but we are making some headway in this realm.

2Technology can impact children's health and well-being.

Increased media exposure has been linked to health problems such as child obesity and sleep disturbances. Studies show that even background TV (television not meant for children but still on) can noticeably change how children play–decreasing their attention span with each toy and even how long they play. Background TV also can affect parents’ interactions with their children, reducing the quality and amount of time they spend with their child. 

3Technology can provide young children with opportunities.

Dr. Truglio highlighted apps that can help children learn. With Sesame Street’s new vocabulary building app, Big Bird’s Words, children hunt for words in the real world, using the phone; in other words, children use technology as a tool to engage with the real world. A large study in Idaho Head Start programs showed significant increases in children’s ability to identify the words and explain their meaning after using the app. Apps like this can address issues like the word gap--a term used to describe the large difference in the number of words a child is exposed to based on socio-economic status. The benefits of technology use are not limited to curriculum. Carnegie Mellon’s Message from Me uses video footage to help parents and children connect by showing parents what activities their child is doing in their day care/early learning center. 

4We need a new way to talk about children's technology use.

The amount of time a child spends in front of screen media is only part of the discussion. Parents are caught between how industry markets the role of technology in learning, and fear-based messages, which can leave parents confused and alarmed. As an alternative, Ms. Guernsey suggests using three C’s to guide discussions about technology use: content, context, and your child as an individual. Taking these three C’s into account gives adults the flexibility to determine what is best for each child. 

5Parents and child care providers need support.

Rather than blaming and shaming parents, researchers and educators should look further into questions of how best to guide parents and caregivers in the use of digital media by children. With more than 75,000 “education apps” for the iPad alone, there’s clearly need for greater guidance. Child care providers also need more opportunities for professional development in this area. And, the tech industry should be more mindful about engaging child development experts, particularly those with experience specific to the age group they target, to support the development of apps and provide information to parents.

Here are some resources the speakers suggested: the NAEYC position statement on technology and childrenCommon Sense Media, the Fred Rogers CenterPBS Parents, and Little eLit. Guernsey also highlighted the books Digital Decisions: Choosing the Right Technology Tools for Early Childhood Education by Fran Simon and Karen Nemouth, and Teaching in a Digital Age: Smart Tools for Age 3 to Grade 3 by Brian Peurling, as helpful guides for early childhood media exposure. If you are interested in the ways digital tools can promote early literacy, check out New America EdCentral’s recently released “Seeding Reading,” a collection of articles and analyses on reading in the “digital age.”