Tablets for Tots: Don't Try This at Home?

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Many professionals have expressed concern over the significant developmental harm that electronic screen devices can cause kids

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What if an academic researcher proposed a study in which preschool children were given electronic screen devices with apps in place of conventional toys and illustrated books. I doubt it would pass any institutional review committee, not because the content was necessarily harmful, or because it might not have educational benefits, but because the risk of significant developmental harm has been raised by many professionals. Yet information technology companies are free to offer devices targeted at young children, according to an article in the Washington Post, which cautions:

For children 2 or younger, all those screens can have a negative effect on development, according to a recent statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics. If you really want to help boost brain power, the best solutions can be found with unstructured play, the academy said.

"Kids need laps, not apps," said Frederick Zimmerman, an expert on media and child health and the chairman of the Department of Health Service at UCLA

Smartphones and tablets are often called eye candy for good reason. It would be overzealous to deny gadgets entirely to young children, but questionable to let them have all they could eat. And any grownup who has ever tried to beat his or her best Tetris score, as I did recently during a flight delay, knows how addictive devices can be. It's strange that while middle-class parents are otherwise more cautious and safety conscious with their children than any previous generation in history, and many still suspect vaccines, they are ready to embrace seriously questioned theories of child development.

In some ways, electronic devices are no worse than other indoor activities, as Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang recently pointed out in the New York Times, but if their popularity means that children are spending even more time indoors, they are likely to increase the rate of myopia.

I could fill a page with references, but the most vivid argument for the limits of screen culture comes from a technology guru, the former Apple human interface designer Brett Victor (thanks, Dr. Frank Wilson). No wonder so many Silicon Valley parents send their own kids to Waldorf Schools.

Image: ARZTSAMUI/Shutterstock.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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