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Hanna Rosin’s cover story, “The Touch Screen Generation,” in The Atlantic magazine last month, addressed a common dilemma. The American Academy of Pediatrics, as I noted earlier, recommends no screen time at all for children under age two, yet 90 percent of parents with children that age admit letting their kids watch TV and use mobile devices. Rosin counts herself among them, one of the “American parents who are clearly never going to meet the academy’s ideals, and at some level do not want to” — who hope, instead, that electronic media might even be helpful and educational, when used in the right ways.

Content, Context and Your Child

There may be some evidence for taking the less hardline view when it comes to toddlers and technology. Rosin’s article approvingly cites Lisa Guernsey, the author of what is still the most comprehensive book on this subject, recently re-released as Screen Time: How Electronic Media From Baby Videos to Educational Software Affects Your Young Child. I recently caught up with Guernsey to talk about what peer reviewed research really says about the possible upsides of screentime for young children.

Her first point is that the sheer quantity of screentime might not be the right factor to focus on. Instead, she recommends looking at the three Cs: Content, Context and Your Child.
Content, she says, must be age-appropriate and developmentally tested. “If something’s put into a TV show or an online game that we as adults think is incredibly obvious, it may not be obvious to young children.” For example, research suggests characters should point to an object when introducing a new word, or in the case of a verb, they have to exaggerate the action associated with the word for children to get it.

Context has to do with children’s responses to what they are seeing. Do they imitate the actions shown on screen or in the game? Do they ask questions? Can their interest in, say, a science game be transferred to working with a real science kit?

And the third C, Child, has to do with your particular child’s personality. Is the exposure to games or apps making him more anxious or withdrawn, or is she blossoming in discovering a new skill and following her curiosity?

Knowledge Gaps

These guidelines are subjective, Guernsey acknowledges, because the state of peer-reviewed research “is really quite far behind when you think about how ubiquitous touch screen media is in children’s lives.”

Guernsey cites just one study, conducted in 2010 at Georgetown with 2 1/2 to 3 year olds, that indicates that children might learn to imitate a particular action–finding a hidden toy–better from even crudely interactive media (a video where children have to push a button to answer a question in order for it to continue) vs. a passive video, and just as well as they learned from a live, interactive demonstration.

Ideal vs. Real

That’s not to say, cautions Guernsey, that interactive media is always better than TV.

The proliferation of “educational” iPad and iPhone apps, she says, as well as the general buzz around digital natives, digital literacy, and 21st century learning, has shifted how parents view children’s exposure to screen media– from overwhelmingly negative, to much more ambivalent.

“People tend to believe that if my kids are interacting, they’re getting something out of it, versus if they’re just watching they’re not,” she says. But the research doesn’t bear that out. “Some so-called “passive” screen media may be designed much better than some interactive media.”

Then there’s the not so little fact that children are drawn to electronic media in a way that provides parents some much-needed moments of respite–to take a shower, or to eat a meal in a restaurant without bothering everyone around them and having to leave. “I’m very cognizant of the stresses in parents’ lives today, and came to believe we shouldn’t be beating ourselves up and feeling horribly guilty about those moments when we do need to rely on it to get something done.”


One distinction that I intuitively think is important, that Guernsey doesn’t draw, is between apps that follow a predetermined script or path, and tools that allow for free play.

Many electronic games, “educational” and otherwise, have set right or wrong answers, with rewards and punishments along the way. They may be good for memorizing letters, numbers, or colors, but they don’t necessarily promote real engaged learning.

But when you let toddlers play with the camera on a smartphone, or the voice recorder, or a piano, or a virtual drawing palette–or for that matter, video chat with a friend or relative–their interaction can be anything they want it to be. There’s no right or wrong. It’s turning the phone into an open-ended toy for free expression.

The same is true of a lot of the apps coming from the MIT Lifelong Kindergarten group, like Scratch, an animation platform that actually teaches coding, and from the Mozilla Webmaker initiative. There’s an emerging sense in the tech world that children’s interaction with technology should not be “read-only”, but that they should experience how digital tools enable creativity.

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