In the video that went viral, a toddler with a magazine happily taps its glossy pages with a pudgy index finger. She taps it again, perplexed, then tries swiping all her fingers across the page. Nothing happens. Is it her finger? She presses her finger into her leg to make sure it's working. Yep, that works. She taps again and looks up at her parent, at a loss. Even before she's learned to talk, this baby has spent enough time with a touch screen that she assumes a magazine is a broken iPad.
When that video hit the Internet in 2011, only 10 percent of children under 2 had used a mobile device. Just two years later, that figure jumped to 38 percent. The percentage of kids 8 and younger who've used a mobile device nearly doubled from 38 percent to 72 percent in that same time, according to a survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that assesses the effect of media on children.
"I've never seen a new medium take hold among little kids this fast," project director Vicky Rideout said in a press release announcing the new numbers. "As many little babies and 1-year-olds have used smartphones or tablets today as all kids under 8 had done just two years ago."
The market has responded with a huge variety of apps geared toward kids of all ages, many of them educational and designed for developing minds. But pediatricians and child development specialists have long warned against too much screen time for children — for kids under 2, the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends none at all. Most of the studies linking screen time with attention problems and obesity have focused on television, however, and researchers are only beginning to examine the many ways we engage with our various smaller screens.
So how much should parents worry? Are mobile devices revolutionizing the way kids learn, or turning them into gadget addicts? Is using a device an essential skill in the modern world, or something parents should limit? Studies eventually will tell us more, but children today can't just wait 20 years for the results to come in. So the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital offers recommendations on media from a pediatrician's perspective, based on what's available now. They say the important thing is not the specific device or amount of time, but how it's being used.
"What we like to focus on for any type of media use is mindfulness: What are you trying to accomplish?" says Lauren Rubenzahl, Center on Media and Child Health program administrative manager.
The center encourages parents not to think in terms of limits, but about all the positive activities that a child needs in their day. Take a toddler's day, for example: They already sleep through a lot of it, so their waking hours should be used to interact with caregivers and learn about the world through hands-on play. That doesn't leave a lot of time for passively sitting in front of the TV. For older kids, it's the same idea: Physical activity, schoolwork and socializing should take priority.
Research shows that having the TV on while doing homework makes it take longer, Rubenzahl says, and even adults can benefit from the corresponding rule of thumb: If media use is getting in the way of what you're trying to accomplish, it's time to turn it off or put it away.
That's similar to how some Spokane-area classrooms are integrating tablets without letting them become a distraction.
"The strategy is: Get it out when you need it, put it away when you don't," says Kristin Whiteaker, director of Instructional Technology for Spokane Public Schools.
The district is only beginning to use mobile devices in classrooms, but teachers have so far reported that students are more engaged when they're used during lessons. In January, the district did a full analysis of nearly every device on the market, and found that Windows 8.1 devices worked best with their existing curriculum and network. And that's the goal — the district already provides a lot of resources online and recommends some other free educational apps and sites. Making all of that easily available to students will empower them as they learn.
"As students are struggling or figuring out a problem, they can go to those resources for homework help," Whiteaker says.
In the latest survey from education and technology nonprofit Project Tomorrow, more than half of middle- and high-schoolers say they want to be allowed to use their own mobile devices at school to help with schoolwork, and a quarter of middle-schoolers say they've played a game outside of school time specifically to learn something.
But how's a parent supposed to know whether their child is learning or just playing games? The Center on Media and Child Health recommends that parents sit down with their kids and ask them to show how they're using the device. If a child is playing a game, a lot of times they'll be better at it than a parent who tries it out — and that's a good thing, Rubenzahl says, because it can be fun for kids to demonstrate mastery and teach their parents. But it's also an opportunity for parents to see and discuss the content. If kids are drawn to shooting games, for example, parents can ask kids how it makes them feel and help them see how it relates to real life.
Parents should stay involved and curious about how their kids are using devices, Rubenzahl says, and shouldn't be afraid to set boundaries even if they don't fully understand the device themselves.
"We really encourage parenting in the digital space," she says, "even when kids know the technology better than the parents." ♦