What Is This App Doing To My Kid's Brain?

Seven out of 10 kids in tablet-using homes use the tablet themselves. The author of a new book argues parents are paying attention to the wrong criteria to decide what’s good and bad in kids’ media.

The amount of digital media exposure we’re getting, even among the tiniest infants, just keeps growing. Half of all children under the age of 8 have access to a touch-screen device, whether smartphone or tablet, at home, and half of infants under 1 year watch TV or videos—an average of almost two hours a day. The educational app field is seeing massive growth with 80% of educational apps in the iPad store targeted to young children. But research, says one expert, is lagging far behind practice.

"Parents tend to think: 'If my kids are interacting with media, that they’re getting something out of it,' versus 'If they’re just watching they’re not,'" says Lisa Guernsey. "It’s a dangerous dichotomy—it’s not always true. Some passive screen media may be designed much better than some interactive media."

Guernsey’s book Screen Time has just been newly revised and updated, summarizing the latest peer-reviewed research on kids and digital media. There’s still frustratingly little research that has been published on kids and games or apps, but one Georgetown study was promising. It found that 3-year-olds who played a simple hide-and-seek game with puppets by pressing a space bar were able to apply that knowledge to the real world (looking for the dog puppet behind a clothesline in a real-life setting similar to the game), while those who merely watched the puppets on video were less engaged and less able to apply what they saw.

What’s unknown, but fascinating, is how media and especially touch screens, might shape—or warp—children’s attention span, language development, and dawning understanding of concepts like object permanence and "pictorial competence." That phrase refers to the fact that between 9 and 15 months of age, babies are apt to grab at or even try to taste a picture of a bottle in a book, not quite understanding the difference between a 3-D object and a 2-D representation. But what happens when that 2-D bottle is on a touch screen and can be moved around, tipped over, and "spill" with sound effects?
"We’re primed now for some research that digs into how very young minds are understanding what they’re touching on a screen and how it relates to real life," Guernsey says.

This infographic, from Schools.com, gives a sense of some of the numbers on children and digital media:

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  • Dale

    The research of Robert Putnam validates this article’s
    implication that children exposed to screens before 3 years of age can have
    developmental difficulties, especially in terms of “pictorial competence.”
    Parents and teachers should monitor the amount of screen exposure all children
    receive; however, young children’s brains are rapidly creating, reinforcing and
    pruning neural connections that affect lifelong evaluations of their
    surroundings and situation. Thus, their exposure should be strictly limited and
    replaced with higher amounts interpersonal interaction.

    It’s dangerous for parents to assume that because a child
    plays with interactive media that “they’re getting something out of it.”
    Parents and teachers not only have to duty to monitor the content with which
    their kids interact, but they must also make wise investments in media and
    technologies that are research backed and promote active learning. Sadly, the
    wide majority of the attractive games on the market are only just that, an
    attractive game that captures a child’s attention. There are plenty of
    educational games, devices and apps available for parents and teachers who want
    their children to learn, while they feel that they are at play. Check out Hatch
    Early Learning, an early education company that focuses on child-appropriate
    hardware and software.

    Dr. Dale McManis

  • Kilo2charlie

    Just a tidbit from observing my daughter (5). I had her at the barbershop with me when she was three, they had an arcade game there and I was showing it to her while we waited. When I gave her a chance to interact with it she immediately tried to use the screen to manipulate the objects on in the game. I thought it was pretty interesting (not to mention funny) that she tried to interact with such a large object in the way she did with my iphone. 
    We let our daughter play with touch screen devices in moderation (mostly for travel) just as we do with all other technology. She still prefers to color in her coloring books and play with her other toys if given the opportunity. 
    I think that this will play out just as TV and other electronic devices have. There will be parents who let their children overindulge and others who will not. I agree with swagv that it will be parents who determine their children's education. 

  • swagv

    Infographics: for people too lazy to read and prefer to be entertained than informed.

  • Juan Prego

    A left hemisphere comment for a right hemisphere approach to information.

  • Anya

    Indeed, infographics are making people lazy. And this trend is leaking into educational materials, f/k/a textbooks. Combine the infographic with giving kids a tablet and in ten years our school won't have any students that can read an entire paragraph.

    Sure tablets may help initially increase literacy, but in the long term, I would be willing to bet that a better indicator of literacy and test scores will still be parents education levels and actual time spent with the kids, and not the influence of these wonder tablets.

  • Ben Devine

    I find it really hard to believe that "half of all children under the age of 8" have access to a touch-screen device.

  • kmg

    We need to remember "everything in moderation". I'm sure the iPad has benefits for certain things and can engage kids (I've seen it with my 2 year old!), but it should also not replace physical play, hide and seek, and social interaction with others! Everything in moderation, including the iPad, TV, sweets, and we'll be fine.

  • Badrinarayanan

    This is indeed an on-going problem. But I'll argue that the problem cannot be dangerous as it deals with technology on the one hand and social media on the other hand. There is a treacherous dichotomy which prevails among the usage of the apps. But the social factor among the kids is present completely outside the technology even today. And this cannot be controlled by the parents. The more they control, the more discredited it poses itself in the minds and hearts of their loved ones.
    Technology is an enabler to the social world. The best way to gain control is not to control and instead monitor them and act accordingly.