Plugged in early
Local child development professionals weigh pros and cons of ubiquitous electronics
As people’s lives become more and more integrated with the Internet, it’s not surprising that children get exposed to technology at a young age. Tablets were especially hot gifts this Christmas—including devices designed for, and marketed to, kids—and even youngsters who didn’t unwrap a smartpad may get the chance to use one in preschool or grade-school classrooms.
Is that a good thing? Should we grin or grimace when we see a child engaged with electronics?
Perhaps a bit of both, according to North State professionals involved with childhood health and development. Tablets have benefits, provided their use is judicious.
“It comes back to the same conversation that we had about TV 20 years ago,” said Heather Senske, administrator of Child Development Programs & Services for the Butte County Office of Education. “It’s about the quality of the program, the appropriateness, the learning that’s offered—and then the adult who’s there to interact in order to facilitate that learning and to make it relevant to the child.”
While research on how tablets, computers and smartphones affect child development remains in the early stages, television may prove an apt parallel, particularly since so many children use them to watch videos. The American Academy of Pediatrics lumps viewing and computing into one category—“screen time”—with a recommendation of no more than two hours per day, and only for children at least 2 years old.
Even then, the tablet, like the TV, shouldn’t replace parental interaction. All too often, though, an electronic device becomes what Dr. Craig Corp calls “a fancy pacifier,” and an engrossing one at that. In his pediatrics practice in Chico, Corp frequently sees children so mesmerized by tablets or phones that he has a hard time getting their attention.
Not all parents want their children hard-wired to technology. Ronda Gambone, owner of Little Discoveries Preschool, which has two campuses in Chico, said she used to have Leapster tablets and computers for pre-K and kindergarten students, but no longer.
“So often the families get so much of it at home that our experience is [parents] don’t want [their kids] in front of TV or technology here at the school,” Gambone said. “A lot of the preschool environment is socialization; they need to learn how to socialize and problem-solve. [Computing] was just one of those things that wasn’t working; a lot of the younger ones didn’t quite understand the concept of what they were doing.”
Exposure is a matter of degrees. While some parents don’t permit their young children to spend time in front of a screen, Corp said, many do. As such, content counts.
“If a child is actually going to learn something, and it’s not [presented] at a super-fast pace, that’s probably OK,” he said. “Like everything else in life, if you’re doing something active that engages the mind—doing something creative, actually putting things together—that’s better than doing things that are just passive.”
Heidi Cantrell, perinatal outreach coordinator at Enloe Medical Center, has a simple saying: “Active child, passive toy.” Parents should give children objects that offer the child “control over cause and effect”: blocks, tea sets, jack-in-the-boxes and toys with buttons that elicit actions.
The latter description may fit a tablet. Well, that’s true when used by older children; a toddler mimicking Mom’s motion of swiping a finger across the screen is probably not deriving the same interactivity, though.
That’s why Corp and Cantrell endorse the AAP’s recommended limits on screen time. Children, Cantrell said, require “quality-of-life experience—human-relationship-based experiences that last a lifetime. … All humans need to be accepted and loved and have a purpose. I don’t think technology gives that as well as another human can give that to us or we can give to another human.”
With tablets for children a relatively new phenomenon, researchers have not been able to complete long-term studies on if or how the technology affects development. A previous study linking TV to ADD could prove prescient, though.
That research, published in the medical journal Pediatrics, found a correlation between attention-deficit disorders and the amount of television children watched as infants and toddlers. The more hours watched under age 3, the greater the likelihood of developing ADD or ADHD.
“The brain goes through a tremendous amount of development those first few years of life,” Corp explained, “and that’s at least some of the concern with the overuse of TV with younger kids. There’s at least some limited evidence that it can actually affect brain structure, brain development and nerve connections.
“Is that good or bad? As we move into the future with technology more integrated into our lives, I don’t know that we know the answer for that, but I think we need to be cautious with it. Not all things are good for the developing brain.”
Cantrell equates a baby’s brain development with gardening, in which billions of neurons “are like seeds, and when they’re nourished by positive experiences, it encourages synaptic growth, or an electrical storm of wiring that goes on in the brain and imprints forever. …If neglected, [the garden] will never grow the root system; and if it’s over-watered and doesn’t struggle on its own, it won’t be as strong, [either].”
That’s why child-development experts put such a premium on parental involvement and truly educational experiences—some of which are indeed possible with a tablet. The program in use on the tablet—be it a book, game, puzzle or video—should spark inquisitiveness and conversation. It should be “appropriate to the child’s level of development,” Senske said, and supplement other methods of learning.
Noted Corp: “Technology is not all good or all evil—it’s a million shades of gray. It depends on how it’s used.”