Occupational therapist Katherine Collmer, author of the blog Handwriting with Katherine, is here today to share her insights on the latest findings and recommendations related to “touch screen babies”. She has some powerful information to share, plus tips for how we can enhance our children’s learning experiences without giving up the latest technology!
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I am thrilled and honored to be a guest blogger at Mama OT! Christie is such an awesome occupational therapist and mom and I’m happy to be a part of her guest blogging team!
The first time I heard the term “touch screen babies,” my first thought was “babies?!” Not that screen time was a new idea. It was just that I had not been involved in the evolution of this concept. My daughter was already 25 in the late 1990’s when “Baby Einstein” was introduced as an educational tool for babies. And I know that at that time I shook my head and stated, “Thank goodness she wasn’t exposed to all of this nonsense.”
As a baby, my daughter spent time snuggling up to me and flipping through those cute little plastic books that squeaked when you touched them and were filled with colorful pictures. When she was two, she enjoyed sitting and reading books with me, coloring and drawing, and talking to her Fisher-Price “little people” under the dining room table. The notion that she should be spending her precious “little kid time” facing a screen of some sort and swiping her hands across it to match the letter A with the picture of an apple wasn’t even in my repertoire of worries at that time. As videos and video games began to make their way into our home, she was 8 years old and devouring books far advanced for her age. Personally, I was more worried that she was interested in some author named Stephen King than I was about the video world being a distraction.
It seemed that I had dodged a bullet when it came to worrying about the threat of technology on my daughter’s cognitive development. Or did I? Was there, indeed, anything to worry about at all?
Results from a 2011 survey conducted by Common Sense Media, a US non-profit advocacy group, found that “more than a third (38%) of children” have used mobile devices with touch screens. This number included “10% of 0-1-year-olds, 39% of 2- to 4-year-olds and 52% of 5- to 8-year-olds.” The survey revealed that 52% of all children have access to a smartphone (41%), a video iPod (21%) or an iPad or other tablet device (8%), with 11% of the 0- to 8-year-old population spending time on them daily. These children have been labeled “digital natives” as they have become the first generations of children who are ” ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”
Mark Prensky, in his 2001 article, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” noted that, at that time, the average college graduates had “spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV).” Technology has become an integral part of children’s lives. He contends that the “arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century” can be regarded as an event that changed life for our children “so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back.”
In that light, what effects would this more recent immersion into the world of technology from nearly the day of their birth have on our children’s cognitive and physical development?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement in 1999 that “recommended that pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of two years.” In a 2011 revised policy statement, the Academy clarified and updated its rational for this recommendation and expanded the definition of the term “media” to include “television programs, prerecorded videos, Web-based programming and DVDs viewed on either traditional or new screen technologies.”
Ari Brown, a pediatrician and member of the AAP committee that wrote the revised report stated, “There have been about 50 studies that have come out on media use by children in this age group” since 1999. Results of those studies have shown “that children don’t really understand what’s happening on a screen until they’re about 2 years old.” A study conducted by Patti M. Valkenburg, Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam, titled “Developmental Changes in Infants’ and Toddlers’ Attention to Television Entertainment,” showed that “young children pay most attention to television content that is only moderately discrepant from their existing knowledge and capabilities.” Applause and visual surprises, which are salient auditory and visual features of media context, particularly attract young children’s attention. The shift from this state to paying attention to non-salient and content features (character action and letters/numbers and meaningful dialogue) begins between the ages of 1.5 and 2.5 years.
This information begs the question, “How educational are educational forms of media designed specifically for infants and toddlers?”
The Revised AAP policy statement cited research that found that “certain high-quality programs have educational benefits for children older than 2 years.” These children developed improved social, language and school-readiness skills. But, despite the numbers of top-selling videos marketed for infants and touting their educational benefits, the AAP declares that “the educational merit of media for children younger than 2 years remains unproven.” The cognitive stage of development of children in this age group does not provide them with the processing skills required to understand the content of this media nor to be able to attend to it. According to Claire Lerner, a child-development expert at Zero to Three, children under the age of 2 “learn best in the context of relationships.”
Although it has been cited that one longitudinal study of children older than two and a half showed that children who watched shows such as Blue’s Clues made measurably larger gains in flexible thinking and problem solving over a two-year viewing period, it has been found that younger children do not realize this benefit. Researchers have identified a cause for this, labeling it the “video deficit.” The problem lies in their inability to learn about a 3-D world via a 2-D medium. In a study of two-year olds conducted by Georgene L. Troseth and a research team from Vanderbilt University, titled “Young Children’s Use of Video as a Source of Socially Relevant Information,” it was found that, “Children who were told to find a hidden toy “face to face” via a technique similar to a webcam typically found it, but children who were given the same information by a person on a video did not,” at rates of 65% (a rate similar to face-to-face interaction) versus 39% respectively. There are theories among developmental psychologists about the cause of this video deficit. It is felt that “toddlers who have no trouble understanding a task demonstrated in real life often stumble when the same task is shown onscreen.” This goes back to the results from the Valkenburg study indicating that toddlers under two are only able to understand information provided by media for which they have had previous experience. Reinforcement may be acquired; however, learning seems improbable.
The question remains, however, “But is it harmful?”
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Revised Policy Statement cited study findings indicating that heavy television use by children between 8 to 16 months of age had effects on their language development. It was reported that “in the short-term, children younger than 2 years who watch more television or videos have expressive language delays and children younger than 1 year with heavy television viewing who are watching alone have a significantly higher chance of having a language delay.” These findings warrant continued research as the long-term effects on language skills remain unknown.
The AAP also shared information relative to infant media use and subsequent attention problems in school-aged children. Results from one study “found that the effects of television watching on infants’ attention span varied with the content of the programming.” The revised policy statement indicated that although the current research findings show a possible correlation between television viewing and developmental problems, they cannot show causality. The factors still to be considered are the infants’ levels of language skills and attention span, and the question to be answered: “Does media exposure contribute to a delay in social or communication skills and a diminished attentional capacity because of existing delays in these skills? Or do they cause them to occur with children who do not have pre-existing delays?”
Once again, more research is needed.
The underlying cause for concern from my perspective as an occupational therapist is the effect that more “screen time” (visual or touch) may have if it takes away from “play time.” It has been reported that “young children’s acquisition of cognitive skills is facilitated by interactions with their parents.” The inclusion of free and unstructured play, as well as guided free play, has been deemed by the AAP as “healthy and – in fact – essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”
Play time before the age of two involves parental interaction. Sharing books and music, exploring the environment, and discovering how their bodies work are the play activities that infants and toddlers enjoy with their parents. Laughing, singing, and talking are their simple means of communication, ones that can only be derived from human, responsive interaction…where “I do something and you do something back in response”. Given the fact that the acquisition of communication skills is an integral developmental step during a child’s early years and that this process is a complex one involving auditory, linguistic, cognitive and environmental factors, it goes without saying that human-human interaction (be it parental or caregiver) will have a profound effect on the quality and quantity of language development during early childhood.
In light of the research results revealing “that the amount of linguistic input mothers direct at children is strongly related to children’s vocabulary growth” and that “children who started watching television at two years of age or younger were approximately six times more likely to have language delays,” the question remains, “Can a child under the age of two attain the same quality of linguistic skills from a character or voice produced on the touch screen that he can from his parents?”
There is no getting around the fact that technology is no longer a vision of the future. The future is here.
So how do we enhance our children’s learning experiences in a world of touch screen babies without going “cold turkey” on technology?
Here are some “home-grown” strategies that will do just that:
- Let them play! Imaginative play, be it independent or with an adult or friend, allows children to gather new information about themselves and the world around them, experiment with it, revise it and reuse it without any fancy gadgets.
- Provide them with plenty of gross motor play, inside or out, that gives them the opportunity to move their bodies, learn how they work and develop motor planning strategies they can use in learning for the rest of their lives.
- Treat them to time alone with you, engaging in reading, crafts, cooking or doing the laundry. Children learn from observation and modeling and they will develop life-long behavioral and emotional skills from you.
- Give them boundaries. Children expect them. TV, touch screens, or computers are not bad. Moderation is the key. Let them know ahead of time what your expectations are (e.g., 30-minutes per day/week, 1 app per day) and stick to it! BUT….be responsible and engage WITH your child during these activities. Although it may be fine to use technology as a “sitter” at times, it’s always good to be there for questions!
Technology advances occur at a rate faster than research data can be collected. New “educational” toys, applications and programs appear on the market daily, offering parents the opportunity to provide their children with the best possible paths for cognitive development. Touch screens have replaced magazines. Are they an asset or a liability in our babies’ lives? For me, the jury has come in with a verdict. Personally, I vote for picture books and mommy’s lap.
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Katherine Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who is hopelessly in love with handwriting! She owns and operates a small clinic that specializes in just that where she brings fun, movement and play into the mix. She currently lives on Cape Cod, in Sandwich, MA, USA, and is kooky when it comes to walking her Welsh Pembroke Corgi, Ron, along the beach. Of course, she is even kookier when it comes to her husband, John, as they travel across the US looking for adventure! She enjoys reading mystery novels (especially the British ones) and writing her long-winded blogs. Cross-stitch is high on her list of relaxing activities, right before playing games on her iPad! Follow Katherine on by liking her Facebook page or by visiting www.handwritingwithkatherine.com.
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