Discovering That Your 18-Month-Old Is Using an iPad in Pre-School

How to react?

On a recent summer day in Nashville, Kara Teising opened her Facebook page for a lunchtime scroll through her timeline when she discovered a photo posted by her son’s daycare: an image of her 18-month-old son surrounded by other toddlers, their chubby faces glued to a brightly colored, animated screen of an iPad. The accompanying post read, “We are taking a BYTE out of our new Apple iPads! We are hungry for learning!” Teising was shocked, unaware that the school, which serves children from six weeks old to pre-K, even had iPads.

A few days later, Teising arrived to pick up her son a little early and found her child’s caregiver “sitting lazily on the floor, showing him a video on her phone,” as she put it. Teising became incensed. Up to this point, she and her husband had been very happy with school - a pricey, highly academic daycare/preschool chain that calls itself “The Princeton of Preschools.”

Teising said that before the iPad and phone incidents, she hadn’t thought much about when she wanted her son to begin using digital technology at school. “When we initially toured the school before he was born, we saw that they had computers in the three-year-old classroom,” she said. “We didn’t know how we felt about that - but we had to make that decision so much sooner than we thought. It was not what we were expecting.”

Teising was promised that her son could be separated from the group while the others worked on apps. She was given the example that if the other toddlers were working on an app comparing the size of circles, her son could do the same thing, only with “real circles.” Teising couldn’t see what made the digital circles any better than the real ones in the first place. After several discussions with the school’s leadership, Teising and her husband decided to pull their son out.

Teising isn’t the only parent asking questions about their young children and iPad use--there's a robust conversation going on now about apps for babies. Screen Time author Lisa Guernsey recently wrote a Slate piece emphasizing an app’s context--namely, parent interaction--over content when it came to iPad learning for the smallest children. While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screens before the age of two, research is murky on whether screen time--especially “interactive screen time” in which the screen responds to the child’s activity, through touch, voice or click--is good or bad for the youngest children. This is a topic Hanna Rosin covered here at The Atlantic a few months ago in “The Touch-Screen Generation.” Rosin interviewed many experts and appeared to conclude that, much like television, even if screen time was not specifically educational, parents who rationed iPad time for their little ones were probably not doing any significant harm.

But that’s at home, at parents’ discretion. Educational settings like daycares and preschools are another matter. While no official data yet exists on how many preschools are using iPads, school systems like District 203 in Naperville, Illinois, have already equipped every preschool with two iPads per classroom. And a recent survey of K-12 students showed that 48 percent already use a tablet for learning, and 90 percent believe tablets “make learning more fun.”

How are parents to know when it’s developmentally appropriate to introduce screen time into daycare/preschool settings, and how much time their toddlers are parked in front of a “learning” screen? Heather Kirkorian, an Assistant Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, researches toddlers’ ability to learn from video and other screen media. She told me that the National Association for the Education of Young Children already issued a recommendation to bring interactive screens into early-childhood classrooms back in 2011 (in direct opposition, it seems, to the AAP’s recommendation). The report endorses touch-screen media by saying, “When used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.” For babies and toddlers, the report recommends that screen time not be passive (like watching a video) and always accompanied by human interaction.

“During the earliest years, infants and toddlers interact primarily with people,” writes the NAEYC. “They need to freely explore, manipulate, and test everything in the environment. Increasingly in today’s world, this includes the exploration of technology tools and interactive media.”

But Kirkorian believes this recommendation may have been premature, because research on the effects of iPads on toddler brains is still preliminary. The data her team has collected so far suggests that interactive devices might hold some promise for educational value at young ages, but it’s too soon to be completely certain.

To find out whether young toddlers, between 24 and 30 months, could learn better from an interactive touch screen than just plain video, Kirkorian had kids learn a new object, called a “toma,” on three different kind of screens: non-interactive, general interactive, and specific interactive. In the non-interactive video, children were instructed to watch the screen to find the toma, with no pause in the video; the general interactive video asked children to touch the screen anywhere to find the toma, followed by a pause. But in the specific interactive video, kids were instructed to touch a box in order to see the toma, and the video wouldn’t continue until they touched the box. Afterward, children were asked to find the toma among four real objects presented to them.

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Holly Korbey writes about parenting, education, and media for The New York TimesBrain, Child magazine, and MindShift.

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