Toddlers and Tablets: The Cognitive Effect of Raising a Touch-Screen Bound Generation

Alison K Lanier

Nvate toddlers and technology, tablets, Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Apptivity Case

Credit: Ambro

We’ve all heard the oft-repeated trope that too much TV will melt your brain and ruin your eyes, and teenagers who spend hours upon hours playing video games receive dire warnings about the potential health impacts of their technology-ridden habits. So with the burgeoning tablet-computer trend beginning to display a specific focus on young children as a market, for example through such products like child-friendly tablet holders, it’s time to ask the question of what happens when children as young as toddlers are exposed to tablets.

Tablets, a very convenient source of entertainment and distraction used by parents, are a constant presence around many children even without these child-friendly accessories. An article by The New York Times, “The Child, the Tablet and the Developing Mind,” suggests that extended use of tablets by children leads to negative effects including the obstruction of communication skills. However, there is still an upside to allowing these devices to become high-tech toys.

Child-Friendly Products and Expert Concern

The market is rife with gadgets geared toward kids including many products, such as Fisher-Price’s Laugh & Learn Apptivity Case, that are all essentially holders for very young children. These cases make it easier and less worrisome for parents to hand these hundreds-of-dollars pieces of technology to their young children.

These cases allow parents to leave their tablets or phones with the child for hours of quiet occupation without panicking about the safety of their tablets. Perhaps the most ridiculous of the trendy tools to prevent children from ever being separated from their high-tech toy is the iPotty. This protective tablet holder from CTA Digital is designed for young children so that tablets never have to be left behind, even during the ordeal of potty training.

Nvate toddlers and technology, tablets, Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Apptivity Case

This is the iPotty. Credit: Amazon

Among the issues of extended tablet use by young children, The New York Times article pointed to the effects on the development of social skills. These “toys” discourage social interaction in years during which, developmental psychologists agree, fundamental neurological development occurs. Children’s brains are developing during these early years through the most rapid stage of neurogenesis of any point during their lives.

Dr. Gary Small, director of the Longevity Center at the University of California, told The New York Times that these are very real issues. Children who do not engage with the people around them, sequestered by hours spent burying themselves in isolating activities, tend to miss out on key communication skills.

Wired quoted the American Academy of Pediatrics’ strongly negative view of time spent with touch screens in describing the cost of the toddler, touch-screen toy trend. “Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” Wired’s report echoes Small’s concern; the effect of locking a child’s attention onto a screen so early can only, these sources stated, harm the child’s ability to interact with the world at large.

But is this really the case? These anti-social activities do not need to be as stereotypically modern as spending hours immersed in video games or staring blankly into iPad apps. Ozlem Ayduk, an associate professor in the Relationships and Social Cognition Lab at the University of California, stated that other, low-tech distractions like coloring books are not any more anti-social than tablets. “It’s not so much about the iPad versus non-electronics,” Ayduk told The New York Times. There may be no more psychological repercussions to tablets than to excessive reading.

Do Toddler Tablets Have an Upside?

The news about tablets and children may not be all doom and gloom. Tablets have been shown to have the potential for enormous, independent educational value. Children in underprivileged Ethiopian villages were given tablets in a recent experiment by One Laptop per Child. These children showed an incredible capacity to use the tablets to self-educate themselves in language skills, using the programs themselves, and in the functioning of the tablet, by manipulating the technology itself. Far from diminishing mental faculties or abilities, tablets with educational apps have the potential to have positive developmental value for young children who respond to stimuli during these highly formative years, following the logic of this experiment.

Nvate toddlers and technology, tablets, Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Apptivity Case

Credit: Naypong

Moreover it is easier for parents to control which subject matter their children will have access to on the tablets via parental control settings and manually downloading some programs and not others. The tablet is a much more practically child-safe source of games and media than Internet or video games, with more security for parents in deciding which material actually reaches their children.

There are also indications that these toys , which encourage active learning and thinking, do not carry the same isolating and behavioral issues that other diversions, like television for instance, incur. In the recently released study by the Millennium Cohort Group, research indicates that, over a number of years, children who spent hours a day in front of a television were more likely to demonstrate emotional, social, and conduct issues than those who did not. Engaging and interactive activities, though, like video games, did not produce the same negative development results. Similarly, active engagement with devices like tablets will probably not produce the same array of dysfunctions that passive television habits create.

Tablets Help, Not Harm

There may not be any more damage in allowing a child to have constant access to a tablet than allowing constant access to a book. Despite the concerns for eyesight and social skills of a touch-screen bound generation, the development of minor computer skills and a familiarity with touch screens from a young age promises far more benefits than challenges to young learners.

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