Babies, Toddlers and Touch Screens

Have you seen this video from UserExperienceWorks? “A magazine is an iPad that does not work.”

So, what do think? Do you have a touch screen tablet computer or smartphone in your house? Do you let your kids use them, specifically your toddlers?

We recently got a tablet computer and yes, we let our 17 month-old daughter play with it from time to time.

Watching this video made me stop to think – are we harming or helping our babies and toddlers by letting them play with touch-screen computers? I think a lot of us are wondering the same thing. So I put my public health nurse hat on (no, not an actual nursing cap), and dug through the research.

It turns out that it’s a little too early for the research to properly inform us about whether touch screens and babies or toddlers go together, and whether they can actually learn from them. But one thing is for certain: no touch-screen game – or television show for that matter – can ever replace or perform better than loving and purposeful interaction with a parent or caregiver.

Here is what the research to date is saying:

  • Television is not recommended under the age of two because research has shown that infants and toddlers learn best from real-world experiences and learning from television is minimal and can actually get in the way of real learning. In fact, just having the television on in the background can decrease parent-child interaction, which is most important for learning at this age.
  • Preliminary research suggests that touch screens may be better than traditional television at helping babies and toddlers learn when the content is both educational and interactive.

One research study really hit the nail on the head for me. Nowadays you can download interactive books on a tablet. Picture the classic books you loved as a kid or the ones you loved reading over and over to your baby. They are recreated in the tablet and are interactive! Your baby can touch the cow and it will “moo”, put the mittens on the kittens and the cat in the hat. That doesn’t sound so bad right? Research tells us that the best kind of reading with your child is interactive reading. Meaning, take pauses from the words on the page and talk about the story. Point out the how the little boy on the page is sad and ask your toddler why he thinks he might be sad. Or point out the doggy on the page and what sound the dog makes. So, you might say, I can sit with my baby or toddler while they are “reading” an e-book.  Just watch yourself (I am guilty of this too!) – in this research study, parents told their child what to do “Don’t click that! Touch this button!”  instead of talking about the story.

So here’s my philosophy and what we’re thinking here at HaltonParents: as kids get older, it becomes harder and harder to get them to “unplug.”  Turning off the TV, video games, tablets and smartphones can be a real challenge. So start early in setting limits for screen time at a young age. It just makes sense to me. Touch screens and TVs are here and our babies and toddlers are being exposed to them, but we as parents can choose to limit that exposure.

Father and baby exploring outsideI recognize they may come in handy as a survival tool (think 10 minutes to prep dinner or on a long flight) and there may be some benefit in choosing a touch-screen device over the television when the content is educational and interactive, but wait – please don’t run out and buy a touch screen device just because I said that. Learning is done best when babies and toddlers interact with you and the real world, touching three-dimensional objects and exploring for themselves what happens when water is spilled, what grass smells like, what tree bark feels like. And although it’s early days for research related to touch screens and child development, the research is clear in showing that interaction with loving caregivers is so important to babies’ and toddlers’ development. No computer or TV could ever replace that.

So, let’s try and find some balance. Be present with your kids. Let them explore, and make sure their exploring is more of the real world kind than the virtual one.  

What do you think about babies and toddlers using touch screens?  Let’s talk about it!

For parenting information or to speak with a public health nurse (every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) simply dial 311 or 905-825-6000.

About Andrea Scott RN

I’m a public health nurse with the HaltonParents team – you’ll find me blogging, tweeting and answering emails. I’ve been working for the Halton Region Health Department since 2006 and my focus has been on supporting parents with babies and little kids. I have two little ones myself, “Pumpkin” and “Monkey” who give me plenty to blog about! :)
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5 Responses to Babies, Toddlers and Touch Screens

  1. Holly says:

    Great post Andrea! As a Developmental Consultant who works with infants/toddlers & children with special needs, it’s amazing how much touch screen devices have become more and more popular in Special Education. I’ve seen Speech Pathologists use programs that record the child’s sounds and then repeats back to them. What a cool way to encourage sound production! I’ll be writing more about it in July for HaltonParents, but thought I’d give a little teaser. Stay tuned!

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