Screen time for toddlers and preschoolers:  context is (almost) everything

We take in seemingly contradictory messages about young children and their use of technology. How much is too much? How much prepares them for their futures? YouTube is full of clips of toddlers using e-devices with confidence. Yet researchers speak of “screen time,” with no consensus on what’s good, bad, or merely inevitable. One thing is undeniable: most children today learn the language and vocabulary of technology, as early and naturally as they learn to use words.

Back in 2010, as the iPad was launching, Warren Buckleitner, in his New York Times column Gadgetwise, wrote that “Young children think with their fingers. If they see something, they jab at it. Steer left? Lean left.”

The Joan Gaez Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop published a small study, also in the early iPad days, after iPod and iPhone, showing that nearly half the titles in the iTunes App Store education section targeted kids, with preschoolers comprising the largest age category. Among the top 25 best-selling apps, they found 60% were aimed at toddlers/preschoolers. It’s easy to imagine or assume those numbers have stayed steady or even increased.

Last year, Karl Greenberg, writing for Marketing Daily, reported on a study from Ipsos MediaCT, a global independent market research company. “LMX Family” showed that “parents are bringing digital devices to kids at younger ages” and that little ones “are savvy about smartphones, tablets, laptops and games, and prefer them over traditional media and modes of playing and connecting.”

Research continues, and an ever-growing number of tablets marketed to kids, pop up on retail shelves. The Michael Cohen Group LLC, produced a report titled Young Children, Apps & iPad. It was based on a study undertaken “as part of the evaluation activities of the U.S. Department of Education Ready to Learn Program.” They found that “children as young as two years old access, play and learn with touch screen devices,” and they also observed several types of learning that take place during app play. Their study categorized apps for this age group into gaming apps, creating apps, and e-books. Not surprisingly, they found that different age groups interact with and learn from touch-screen devices differently, from a developmental standpoint. However, one of the overall findings was that “touch screen technology and accompanying digital apps offer an accessible and meaningful media platform for children as young as two years of age.”

Our e-world will continue to grow. Apps that are age-appropriate and feature open-ended exploration and playful characters, when combined with introducing and reinforcing specific skills in creative, interactive ways, make the best use of toddler/preschooler screen time, and help build important skills.