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

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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.

Kirkorian wrote in an email:

Older toddlers learned equally well from each of these conditions. However, younger children (e.g., 24-30 months in the word-learning study) only showed reliable learning in the third condition. As in many other studies, these younger toddlers did not learn from traditional, non-interactive video,” Kirkorian wrote in an email. “Moreover, general interactivity did not seem to help them learn. Rather, they only demonstrated learning when they interacted with the video in a specific way that required them to focus on critical information (e.g., the object that the model was about to demonstrate).

For now, researchers have no idea whether very young kids can learn complex, useful information and whether the learning will have long-term outcomes. “Many questions remain,” Kirkorian said. “For instance, can toddlers actually get a jump-start on literacy or numeracy skills using commercially available apps? How does this learning compare to learning from parents or teachers? Are there any risks that undermine these benefits?”

When I took a casual straw poll via social media, nearly all the parents who responded strongly agreed with Teising--they want their little ones to have nothing to do with digital media during the school day. Most said they’d prefer their toddlers focused on play with sensory objects and social interactions. Many were concerned that lots of screen time at very early ages could cause emotional and developmental problems later on, which is supported somewhat by more murky research suggesting that kids who get lots of screen time can have more anxiety and depression. But even that has a lot of ‘big ifs’ attached.

Only one parent who responded, educator and preschool parent Tracy Bays-Boothe of Dallas, Texas, said she couldn’t believe that parents weren’t more enthusiastic about what a touch-screen tablet could bring to toddlers and preschool-age children. “Why CAN'T children, as part of their day, play, dance, sing, create, dig in the dirt, AND have access to high definition images, videos, and immediate information that can add to and enhance their immediate experiences?” she wrote. “‘I don't know’ has been replaced with ‘Let's find out!’ Technology in learning is all in how you use it.”

Kirkorian said something similar: “This is an age-old question that has been asked about almost every form of new media. It's a question of displacement. When children do (fill in the blank), they'll spend less time doing (fill in other activity that is presumed to be more educationally valuable),” she said. “However, research suggests that this is not usually the case - at least not for all children. It's a complex problem, but the bottom line is that content matters.”

My theory is that parents’ apparent strong feelings that toddlers should be spending more time splashing in puddles, sniffing roses, and eating Play-Doh, and less time staring zombie-like at a screen are really misplaced for our own ambivalence toward our technology-addled (or addicted) lives. When thinking of our children lined up at rows of laptops, tapping away at keyboards for the rest of their school careers, parents may have the urge to reach out and say - no, not yet. Plenty of time for computing later.

Teising agreed, and said that her ideal childhood for her son included, “Scraped knees and muddy boots, splashing around in puddles, giggling with friends, and making macaroni art,” and “not trying to force him onto the next thing.”

I shared my theory with Kirkorian –that we parents might idealize a childhood without technology as better. “I often hear ‘grown ups’ talk about the inherent value of ‘real’ objects over technology,” she said, “but frankly I don't see a difference (and there's no research to suggest there is one) between a stick and an iPad. Of course kids should have time to explore the natural environment and interact with other people. A more realistic question is whether an hour or two of touch-screens per day is going to devastate permanently cognitive/social development. It's unlikely, but we just don't know yet, and any answer will depend heavily on program content and the characteristics of individual children.”

Teising is happy that her son is now at home, tech-free, with a nanny and a little bit of Sesame Street. She is surprised that no other parents at the school have expressed concern for the iPad usage, but she still feels she made the right decision. “I mean, they’re babies,” she said.

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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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