I brag to everyone about my three-year old’s tech savviness.
“He can turn on the iPad, play games, use Netflix – it’s amazing,” I tell anyone who will listen. But what’s most amazing is that my son’s skills hardly stand out. It seems other three-year olds are just as masterful at using a tablet.
But this trend has caused some parents to wonder if this is necessarily a good thing. Should we worry whether technology is replacing the toy box? How much time on a tablet is too much time? Is it harming our kids’ eyes or affecting their social skills? At the same time, if we don’t let our kids spend time with technology, will they fall behind their peers?
Patti Wollman Summers, in her new book, Toddlers on Technology, set out to answer these questions.
“I’ve been a teacher for 30 years and was the head of a school. All of a sudden I started seeing a different kind of kid,” says Patti, who is based in New York. “I started seeing toddlers who loved learning and who were enthusiastic about learning from tablets. That enthusiasm is contagious, and kids started realizing that knowledge is fun.”
Easier to manipulate than computers, toddlers have the manual dexterity to use a tablet from an early age. Add to this the existence of apps created especially for little kids and the fact that studies have shown that almost 40 percent of kids under two have an iPad and you’ve got yourself a new breed of toddlers – and new potential worries.
According to Patti, however, technology is not the problem. It’s the balance between technology and the real world that’s key.
“What ‘digitods’ need is balance,” she says, using the word she coined for this new generation of tech-savvy toddlers. “They might enjoy learning on their iPad, but they also need to run around, express what they are feeling, and play with other kids. Parents must make sure to balance real-life activities with digital ones.”
She suggests using your child’s favourite app, Wheels on the Bus, for instance, and relating it to a real bus. “Talk to your child about what happens on the bus. Take them for a ride on a bus, and teach them through doing.”
Patti advises giving children a schedule and limiting their time on a tablet to ensure they can incorporate other activities. “My personal opinion is that digitods should be allowed to use their tablet for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 in the afternoon. Make it regular and establish a routine so it’s fun, but ensure they also know there’s an end time,” says Patti. She also cautions parents to end toddlers’ afternoon tech-time by 4 p.m.; any later and it could excite kids before bed.
Parents who don’t have a tablet or who would rather not let their children have access to one at such young ages needn’t worry that their toddler will fall behind in school. “More schools are using tablets in class,” says Patti. “A child might find it to be an adjustment when they start school, but they will be excited to learn from it once they are exposed to it.”
Currently, there are no studies that have been able to determine the effect this technology will have on our kids’ eyes, brains or social skills. Since the iPad was only unveiled in May 2010, and a longitudinal study takes five years to complete, experts say it’s too early to have any answers.
“What I do know is that I see children who are a whole lot happier to learn,” says Patti.
Tips for Helping Your Digitod
If you enjoy watching your digitod work a tablet, you can help ensure their experience is as positive as possible. Author Patti Wollman Summers recommends the following tips:
- Assess your child’s learning style. Each child learns differently, so it’s important to know whether they are, for instance, an artist (need visual stimulation), an engineer (always thinking and examining), or a worrier (is sensitive and requires a gentle approach). These styles are outlined in Patti’s book.
- Choose apps that cater to your child’s style. An app that uses a timer, for instance, may cause some children to feel stressed, hurt or to worry if they can’t get the right answers on time.
- Check out the free preview option on apps before you buy. This way you will know whether your child will like it before you commit to buying it.
- Enjoy playing the app with your child a few times, then get out of the way. It’s important for them to experiment on their own. Before long they will come to show you what they have accomplished.
- Be sure to praise them for their efforts. This gives you time to hug, kiss and cuddle your digitod, and everyone feels good.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2014.