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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Do Toddler Apps Turn Young Brains To Mush?

The iPad has only been around three years and child development researchers call it a game changer. (See the slideshow of how babies and toddlers are using iPads, above.)

That’s because while parents could pocket their iPhones to hide them from their kids, they can’t do that as easily with the big and bright iPad.

Because they’re so attractive to children, one reviewer of children’s media calls the iPad and other tablet computers baby rattles on steroids.

And a growing number of interactive apps are being developed specifically for two- and three-year-olds.

But while the American Academy of Pediatrics has long discouraged passive media use, the academy hasn’t weighed in yet on interactive applications.

Research is limited, since apps are so new, but the debate is polarized.

Psychologist and author Aric Sigman told The Telegraph, “We risk infantilising the child’s mind by spoon-feeding it with strong audio-visual sensations.”

"This child and his parents were seated at the table next to ours at a restaurant last evening... His parents worked hard to keep him occupied but nothing seemed to last beyond a minute or two until... the iPad appeared." (Dick Jensen/Flickr)

“His parents worked hard to keep him occupied but nothing seemed to last beyond a minute or two until… the iPad appeared.” (Dick Jensen/Flickr)

He argued that computers should be banned from schools until children reach age nine.

Experts told the International Business Times that it might be beneficial for an adult to be present while the child is fixated on the screen.

One correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, Hanna Rosin, delves into the question over whether tablets and apps are good for toddlers, and concludes … maybe they’re not so bad after all.

Do you think interactive apps are good for toddlers? Let us know on Facebook.

Demo of the “Letter School” app:

Demo of the “Noodle Words” app:

Demo of “Toca Boca Hair Salon” app:

Demo of “Toca Boca Tea Party” app:


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • http://www.jerroldrichards.com/ Jerrold Richards

    I think the problem is overdose as compared to moderation. The total time per week spent staring at and interacting with screens, computer, i-pad, video game, movie, television, whatever, as compared to doing all the other things one could be doing, such as raising tomatoes, hiking with friends, learning the bassoon. For children I expect the total hours per week spent with screens needs to be less than for an adult, but who can deny our whole society is overdosing on screens at present.

    • http://twitter.com/UMJM13 John

      A two or three year old playing the bassoon would be pretty hilarious, so I endorse your ridiculous ideas.

  • Karrin Pearson

    I read the Atlantic article and came away very disappointed. I expected to hear more on the research about brain development and how technology like the iPad effects it. As I listen to the show it sounds like there isn t a ton of research about this out there because the iPad is so new. I think the important question to ask here is when we use this technology, what if anything is it replacing in the child’s life? It seems that it is replacing real experiences. When children interact within a false reality, say a virtual tea party or hair cut, they are not interacting within the world. What is the cost? I feel that it is too great.

    • MelissaJane

      How is an iPad not “real”? Why is an imaginary tea party, or a tea party with actual tea cups, superior to a screen? 

      I don’t think we know the answers to that, because there hasn’t been enough research. This kind of article always seems to me to simply be evidence of a bias against technology that we can see, historically, in the introduction of every new communications technology. What’s so great about a book, exactly? Well, the answer is apparently that there is some superior value in creating images in ones’ own mind rather than viewing a video image. But I have never seen any sort of research demonstrating that there is some actual benefit that the printed page holds over the video screen or computer monitor; what I have seen is endless speculation about all the ways in which screens are inferior. And I don’t buy it. I think it’s a cultural bias, not science. 

      • http://profiles.google.com/pjandy Andy Pritchard

        or what’s the difference between a print picture book of say Mary had a Little Lamb vs. an ipad app of the same nursery rhyme? Both present a series of visual images along with some minimal amount of text. An ipad app can integrate sound along with some animation – but effectively so can a pop-up book. 

  • tg

    The University of Washington has done extensive research into the effects of  TV and other visual media on children from 0 to 3.  Their research found that exposure to any type of visual media, regardless of content,  physically changes a child’s brain and increases the chances of them developing learning disabilities.  
    Maybe before you have a program telling parents there is no problem with having their children sitting in front of a TV or video game you should do a little deeper research into the topic.

  • Geejennie

    I have worked in children’s museums and science centers for 20 years. And I am a Waldorf parent. So three comments:
    1. Don’t confused arming your abc’s with education.
    2. One of our museum administrators asked why the real luge motorcycle didnt make a reving sound when they turned the handle bar handle. Answer: because the child doing the work of making up her own sound is an infinitely richer learning experience.
    3. I met a woman who said, “my two-year old is not a normal kid. She doesn’t want to sit and watch TV.”what!!?
    Don’t make technology the norm.

    • Geejennie

      *learning your abc’s

  • Moonie

    As a public school 4th grade teacher I have many questions regarding the proper balance of introducing tecfhnology, specifically iPads, into my own classroom. With limited experience myself I must consider the efficacy of using this “tool” as a way to enhance and improve the learning experience for my students. You discuss this issue regarding toddlers and young children, but what about those that are well under way in their grade school experience? How can selective apps encourage curiosoty as well as offer conduits to learning and researching skills that our children must develop to survive in a future that we can only imagine? I am still grappling with these questions as I try to find ways to integrate tablets into my classroom. Obviously exposre and knowledge of the technology and the myriad of apps available is also very important.

  • Amy L Slutzky

          As a pediatric occupational therapist of thirty-three years, I
    think we are wise as adults to be cautious regarding exposure of very young
    children to any electronic screen use. When we talk about child development,
    development of the brain, it is easy to limit our thinking about cognitive
    development to visual and auditory learning. However, development, especially
    during the earliest months and years, depends on a gradual expansion of sensory-motor,
    or physical control of the body and the hands during movement, directed by the
    visual system.  Control of the body
    and the hands relies on direction by the balance mechanism in the inner ear, joint
    and muscle sensation, and tactile sensation. The sensory-motor part of the
    brain stores the memories of movement to support increasingly skillful movement
    going forward.


    three-dimensional manipulations with infinite varieties of intensive tactile
    qualities and resistance is critical to development of skillful dexterity, or
    eye-hand coordination. Each specific interaction with the environment contributes
    to a storehouse in the brain for future reference.


          Experts in the
    field: Mary Benbow, MS,OTR/L Occupational Therapist, scholar in the area of
    visual-fine motor development, and Dr. Antonia Orfield, an expert in the field
    of Developmental Optometry,  each
    estimated that one-third of our children are failing to develop the
    musclulature of the hand, and the eyes for competent use, in their respective
    fields. The precision muscles in the palm of the hands and the fingers, as well
    as the tiny but all-important eye muscles that control movement of the eyes
    hands do not have the opportunity to develop in the complex context of the
    three dimensional world no matter how “interactive” a designed program might


          I encourage others to include consideration of
    these concerns when discussing the impact of use of any electronic screen
    device in the context of child development. 

  • Sfletcher

    I agree with Jerrold. There is a huge imbalance. Very few children know about the out of doors – where our food comes from, and what is not healthy. Clean water is unavailable, and I believe if children don’t understand about water or the general “outdoors”, there will be no appreciation of life basics. 

    It is all too much individual/screen/phone time and not enough “looking around and looking at each other”.

  • Jencurzon

    I have a 3 year old and nearly 5 year old.  Both are obsessessed with using the “ipad”–they beg for it all the time.  We don’t have other video games, we don’t even have cable, they watch movies maybe twice a week and for a half hour or so in the car each day.  So, maybe 2 hours per day total including the ipad, is spent in front of a screen.  We put a lot of arbitrary limits on ipad use (like in the mornings/after school, when I don’t want to fight about it), but when I’m getting ready for work, or have a conference call from home, etc, then it’s a convenience I use to keep them occupied (guilty as charged).    I’m not sure the exposure to the ipad is having major negative effects on them, but what I realized when I banned the ipad all day on Sunday is when they have no ipad to escape with–they play together, use their imagination and frankly get along better than when there is an ipad to use.  Like us all, sometimes they just want to escape–and I let them.  My concern is they act and respond much like addicts (just like I want to escape my work right now and play puzzles on my ipad!) and that reaction/response concerns me.  

  • JJ

    I have two children that have both been playing videos or computer games since they were toddlers.  One of them is into sports type games.  He loves to play the video sports game (X-box) then go outside to try out the “new moves” he has learned.  He actually spends more time outside playing what he’s learned from the game.  My other child loves to play building games. Where you build a village, take care of animals etc.  With his other time he “uses his imagination” to dress up as a ninja and fight battles (with boxes and stuffed animals).  
    My point is balance.  They both have balance and do the traditional things we associate with growing and learning as kids but also use the new “devices” to explore different ways of playing or learning.   They also do above average in school and have many friends they play with (without devices) so this works for us.

  • MontanaRed

    Both of our kids are now in their mid-20′s, but when they were young, we didn’t limit their TV or computer time, except for necessary routines such as meals, homework, bedtime, etc. Our house is also filled with what I call “input”, which are books, music, videos, video games, computers… Any and all sources of information and entertainment. We read to them exhaustively when they were little. That was always a favorite activity which ensured Mom’s or Dad’s full attention.

    They pretty much taught themselves to read before preschool and have never hesitated to abandon TV or video games for other more interesting options, whether it is crafts, fun with friends, outdoor activities and sports, or a good book.

    I couldn’t help noticing over the years that children whose screen time was limited would fixate on the TV when visiting us, to the point of excluding anything going on around them. Let ‘em watch and play enough and like every other activity, they eventually tire of it and find something else to do. A balance is reached.

    • zendegy


  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/bobhebeisen Bob Hebeisen

    I have a toddler who will be 2 in June.  She loves to watch videos on the iPad (Yo Gabba Gabba, Sesame Street) and I want to move her to more interactive games and learning apps.  Back in the late 90′s there was a clever drawing app on the PC called KidPix that combined drawing with funny transformations & sounds.  I looked for it, couldn’t find it.  Anybody have suggestions of similar games/apps, or other good ones for toddlers?

  • mld

    I think its the wrong question to ask. More important to ask “why are we so enamored with a toddler’s ability to operate a touch screen?” So what? It isn’t difficult–not like they learned to play the violin or learned to read. I’m not a Luddite.  I can think of a few applications: developing independent finger movement, which would be helpful in learning to play an instrument, and developing visual discrimination skills and symbolic representation. Of course, these are all skills they could develop without the aid of the ipad…however, the ipad does make it seem novel.  Personally, I’m more concerned with my children developing higher order thinking skills and habits of mind. A quote by Philip Roth comes to mind: “Literature takes a habit of mind that has
    disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained
    concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing.”

  • afischer

    As the parent of a preschooler, toddler and one more on the way, the problem I have with ipads/apps/tv/etc. is that the creativity has been eliminated.  If my kids want a tea party, the kitchen is raided looking for the “teapot”, “sugar bowl”, etc. We also discuss proper manners and when I don’t participate in activities such as that, I watch my preschooler create an entire world in her mind complete with lectures, lessons and games. I’m not convinced an app offers the same creative/imaginative play that I hope my husband and I are instilling in our children by encouraging them to play without modern gadgets and wizardry.

    I agree with the point below that all of us, toddlers and preschool in particular, spend far too much time in front of screens (recent study showed average amount of television viewed by preschoolers is 4 hours a day!!!).  Between excessive screen time and social media I worry there will be a price to pay.

  • SM

    In the story, you mentioned that Blues Clues was the FIRST interactive television.  I remember playing Winky Dink And You as a kid.  You got a plastic screen that you put over the television screen, then marked it up with special markers to help the story (for example, draw a door for the character to escape, or draw a spoon so they could eat a bowl of soup.  I’m sure I’m not the only child who got in trouble for drawing on the television screen!   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winky_Dink_and_You

  • Sofya

    Very interesting app,
    I did not know this app, thanks for sharing.

    Personally, sometimes I keep time to find a good tool
    for my iPad at work, it’s became a real tool in my business. For the moment, I
    prefer use Beesy for my iPad project management: http://www.beesapps.com/ipad-project-beesy/. With this tool I can follow up projects, import, make annotation and
    share my files with people. I can also organize, share and manage my ToDo list,
    it’s very useful tool for professionals.


    I discovered this app
    on Picks Evernote, so I think it’s can be interesting. I’ll take a look to your
    app look interesting too!


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