Should Toddlers Own Tablets? There's a trove of apps and games for tablets that are meant to help occupy and educate small children. But how early is too early for kids to get tech-savvy? Host Michel Martin sits down with parents to find out how they integrate tablets into their kids' lives.

Should Toddlers Own Tablets?

Should Toddlers Own Tablets?

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There's a trove of apps and games for tablets that are meant to help occupy and educate small children. But how early is too early for kids to get tech-savvy? Host Michel Martin sits down with parents to find out how they integrate tablets into their kids' lives.


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Today, we wanted to talk about something you've probably wondered about or debated yourself, and that is the question of how much, if any, screen time is appropriate for young children. And, if you go just about anywhere these days, the bus, the airport, a restaurant, the doctor's office, just when the meltdown is about to happen, you pull out the iPad or smartphone and you hear something like this.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Team Umizoomi, ready for action.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're at the Umi City toy store. Wow, look at all these toys.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I wonder how many there are. Let's count them and find out.

MARTIN: These devices and apps for young children for these devices are becoming so common now that some parents are starting to wonder if it really is a good idea, so we've gathered a group of people who've been thinking about this. Lisa Guernsey is the author of "Screen Time: How Electronic Media - From Baby Videos to Educational Software - Affects Your Young Child." She's also the mother of two. Julie Guyot-Diangone works on Capitol Hill. She is a staff member. She's a staff member to a member of Congress and she's a mother of two. They are both here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome to you both.

LISA GUERNSEY: Thanks for having me.

JULIE GUYOT-DIANGONE: A pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: And with us from Hagerstown, New Jersey is Warren Buckleitner. He is a father of two. He's also the editor for Children's Technology Review. Warren, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us, also.

WARREN BUCKLEITNER: It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So, Lisa, let me start with you because when you originally wrote your book, you were mainly thinking about DVDs, which were becoming popular for kids and playing on desktop computers. But now, of course, so many more devices and so many more apps for those devices - the tablets, the mobile phones. What do we know? Do we know anything about the way using these devices affect kids, and how are they using this technology?

GUERNSEY: You know, when I started, my kids were one and three years old and I was looking at a base of research that was about TV, essentially, and what we know about TV. But there were a few studies coming out on interactive media at that time, and since then it's a very thin research base so far, but there are a couple of experimental studies that can give us a little bit of a sense of what interactive media means to young kids.

And what's interesting to me is that it's come down to some of the same things that the TV research has shown us - at least so far in these studies - and that is that the content matters. The context, how we actually engage with our children around the media and how it fits into their day, that really matters. And the child, his self or herself - those little guys - they really matter and they're very different and so unique. So tuning in to those three Cs can make a really big difference in making good choices.

MARTIN: So you really just can't generalize across the board. You really cannot. There's no rule of thumb?

GUERNSEY: It's very hard to generalize. Now, there are certainly some ways to generalize around what do we know about good content from what we're learning about passive media, meaning the video that kind of comes at kids and what we're learning about how they understand video. But right now we're at just the cusp of understanding how, say, a three-year-old or a four-year-old or even a two-year old is understanding what's happening on an app and what they're interacting.

MARTIN: Warren, why don't you pick up the thread here because you've also studied this question - early childhood development - and you work with testing a lot of different apps and games. So, why don't you pick up the thread there? What do you feel you know about how kids use this technology?

BUCKLEITNER: Well, I think that what Lisa says is exactly right. I mean, we're at the very beginning stages, but there's a major 900-pound gorilla in terms of research here and that is that these devices are transparent and they're only - the software that's running on them is what makes the difference. And so software - I mean, one tablet can be a camera or it can be a finger-painting activity, which is completely different than something that's very structured, and so you really have to study the individual experience to get anything that's meaningful.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that struck me is there was a recent piece in The Atlantic magazine that I think many people may have seen debating this question and, Warren, you were featured in this piece. And one of the things about this piece is it featured a lot of parents who actually develop apps and games for young kids, but they almost all, to a person, claimed that their own kids were not allowed to use them very much. And, you know, we all read this and wondered, well, is that like, you know, my kid never eats chips and never goes to - you know, eats fast food and never watches television? Is that this kind of thing that middle-class people brag about, but don't really do? What is your sense of this?

BUCKLEITNER: Yeah. It's funny, isn't it? You know, I think we can all agree that our kids are very interested and attracted by these things and we also know that there are thousands, I mean, tens of thousands of apps. And so there's definitely something going on here. I think that what we're all sort of together learning is that different apps do different things and some of these things are great and some of these things are basically - I watched a preschooler use "Temple Run" at a restaurant last night to my amazement. I mean that's really far too hard, but you know, it kept him busy and the parents were talking and so on. And so we know that this is here.

MARTIN: Let's talk of the time that we have now about how - what limits you use for your own kids. And Julie, why don't you start? I know notice that you were telling us that your son is three and he has his own iPad.

GUYOT-DIANGONE: Yeah. He has his own iPad and he's fluent in iPhone. And I don't see any reason to limit his exposure to technology any more than I would limit his intake of pineapples or play time or sleep time. I'm his mom. It's my job to set limits, but I'm also there as he's playing with these things or as he's engaging them, which is I think more apt.

MARTIN: Do you have any specific rules for how you introduce the technology to your kids or how you work with them or what you allow them to do? How do you sort that out for yourself?

GUYOT-DIANGONE: I think that when I play with them I'll limit it if I find it too visually stimulating. There is, I don't know, I'm not fluent in app language, but there is one that my daughter - she's 17 months - is fond of, and you have to find the star and once you touch it, then it explodes. It's very dynamic and it's very frenetic. We don't play with that for a very long time because that's a little too much visual stimulation for me.


GUYOT-DIANGONE: You know, in terms of my son, who is all into dinosaurs now, the rule is happy dinosaurs. And so violence for violence sake Mommy doesn't tolerate. But he has free rein of YouTube and we have rules about that. And he understands that when simple violence is taking place Mommy doesn't like that.

MARTIN: Now I have the feeling that you don't, aren't terribly interested in other people's opinions of your parenting, but we were talking about this earlier, is that when you use, when you see your young children using technology other people feel free to weigh in, right? And do you ever sense that, get a sense of judgment from other parents that you have a three-year-old and a 17-month-old that you're allowing to use a smartphone or an iPad? And if you were hypothetically take care...



MARTIN: ...what would you say to them?

GUYOT-DIANGONE: Well, I think, as a black woman in America, you learn very early to disregard general assumptions about how you should be living your life. But even without that training, I parent my children and so I engaged them, I measure what's good for them, their response to it and also I work with them with it. In terms of other parent's judgment, my God, there's no way to escape it. We live in Washington, D.C. and so if your children aren't fluent in foreign languages by the time they're two, with a vocabulary of 350 words, somehow you know, if your WPPSI score is anything less than 96, you're in trouble. And so you have to let go of all that and just parent your own children.

MARTIN: And is part of what you're saying here that you feel that we're very much ruled by fear anyway?


MARTIN: That there is like a lot of fear-based parenting anyway and that that's partly what you're trying to...

GUYOT-DIANGONE: It's the hallmark of modern parenthood and I find it utterly tiresome.

MARTIN: Warren, what about you? What rules do you have?

BUCKLEITNER: Well, my daughters are both older. I have one in college and one is actually just turned 18 today, and is a senior in high school and graduating, so I can kind of look back on this now and look at all you young parents and say this is what's going on. Of course, the iPad wasn't invented when my kids were young, but I think that it's very important for us to think about, you know, I like to say my kids are bilingual. They speak both Apple and Android. You know, I want my kids - and I did at the time - to be able to use a lot of different kinds of technology, whether game consoles or tablets, and we got them a phone as soon as they could and it was developmentally appropriate. And so I think that that's another side of this. Rather than being afraid of it, we should actually be thinking about how to empower our children and make the most out of the technology to make each stage meaningful.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think that's important, Warren? Because some people feel that the tech - well, they feel two things. They feel that the technology is basically being used as a babysitter number one, and they feel that kids have lost the habit and the ability to tolerate silence.

BUCKLEITNER: Well, I mean it depends on the app. And it gets back to that original idea. These things are transparent. They can be so many different things and I think that you have to trust your gut right now and you have to know your child. And, you know, getting back to what Lisa was saying about the three C's, I think that, you know, it's a time to keep your eyes open and definitely don't be ruled by the outside and give your child the tools and the access to this power so that they can play with it and figure it out.

MARTIN: We're talking about - we're having a regular weekly parenting roundtable. This time we're talking about young people and technology - specifically all these mobile devices that have apps designed specifically for young kids. Our guests are Children's Technology Review editor Warren Buckleitner. He is a father of two Capitol Hill staffer and mother of two, Julie Guyot-Diangone, and researcher Lisa Guernsey.

I was asking what rules you have for your own kids. Lisa, what about you? And I wonder - in your case - I'm wondering if your rules have changed over the years. So you've been you started working on this when the kids were super little and now they're, what, nine and 11.

GUERNSEY: Right. Right. Yeah. Almost 11. My rules have changed. And that is the one thing that I think it's helpful for me looking at the research is recognizing that oh my gosh, I'm not going to mess them up forever if I don't follow some rule exactly to the letter. What I find is most helpful in fact, is just having our children know that we're watching, we're kind of paying attention, we're engaged, we want to ask them about what they're doing and over time that means that our rules change a little bit.

So let me give you example of my 10-year-old, almost 11-year-old, has a Kindle Fire. It was given to her by her grandparents. It's a wonderful tool. It's also becoming a problem at bedtime. And it's gotten to the place where this is my wonderful reading child who loves, loves, loves her books is now watching one video after another after another right before bed. And some of these are wonderful videos about her mind craft, you know, creations, also some other neat things she's doing with computer software. But we've decided as a family - and she's been part of this decision - that at 8:30 at night we're going to have that Kindle Fire kind of out of the bedroom. It's not there anymore. Now is the time, you can read for another half an hour and then it's bedtime as opposed...

MARTIN: A book. A traditional book.


MARTIN: She can't read the book on the Kindle.

GUERNSEY: Yeah. And that's why the Kindle Fire originally was because she was reading a lot of books on another; she had a different kind of eReader device for a while. It wasn't quite working out. This was a way to kind of bring in some more dynamic stuff. It was a lot of fun. It was colorful. But we just - we had to make a judgment, this is not good for her right now in these evenings.

MARTIN: She couldn't calm herself down.

GUERNSEY: It was just one after another - bedtime was like she was kind of track of time. Now I also think she's losing track of time reading her books. And so that's the one thing the that I think is really tough is that for some reason the judgment and the fear that Julie's talking about is so true about today's parenting is we've kind of drawn this really an artificial line, right, between the book world and the media world, when in fact, they're very fluid and for kids there more fluid than we probably even recognize. And so any kind of experience with books oh, you know, that's perfect, that's OK. And then parents get much more judgmental about any experience with video-oriented or screen-based media. And I think we really have to grapple with that, parenting for the 21st century because kids can get lost in books too and not look up. And we want them to be able to look up and see the world around them as well. So we just need to help them and guide them through both of these types of media.

MARTIN: Julie, you wanted to add something?

GUYOT-DIANGONE: I think it's about literacy, electronic literacy, technological literacy. And I wonder how much of this is our internalized fears as children of the '70s, where television was our babysitter. And so we still see these electronic devices as entertainment, even as they're increasingly, increasingly becoming less and less so.

I was responding in my head to something that Warren had said earlier and something that's dear to my heart as I parent is the theory of proximal learning - Vygotsky. And so what it is is that you put something just outside of a child's understanding and that's one way to encourage development. And so when my son was eight and 10 and 12 months old and he was playing with his father's iPhone every day on the bus to daycare, at first it was watching buttons move and then it turned into engagement and he was moving letters into the spots and suddenly he was spelling, you know. And so we've built on that over time but always just out of reach, you know, to bring him to that while we engage him. But the fear. I wonder how much were relying on our old understanding of being left in front of the television for the weekends and we forget our own power as parents. We're much more engaged, this generation, than ever before.

MARTIN: Well, I think it's also the sense that visual imagery can be so lasting in a way that perhaps the written word gives you the space to create your own idea. And I think that I know you referenced sort of being a person of color, one of the things that concerns me is when say a book sort of determines what someone is supposed to look like as opposed to my child being able to write himself or herself into the story. That's the kind of thing that concerns me because someone else is determining what the image is supposed to be. That's kind of part of the fear.

So I don't know, Warren, why don't you give us a final thought about of how people should be navigating this brave - if it's brave - new world.

BUCKLEITNER: Well, I mean I have the acronym ABS, which is access, balance and support. And keeping that in mind, the idea that you give a child access and then have balance so that they get a trip to the zoo as well as an app about the zoo and then the support, which means that you're playing alongside them, you're looking out for quality on that screen. You know, we have to remember that there are apps out there like the Orchestra from Touch Press, or one of my favorites, a free app called Endless Alphabet, that a group of kids can huddle around, it's highly social and they can build a word together. A child who likes music, you can give them Beethoven and, you know, that can start, it can plant a seed that can be incredibly powerful and life-changing. And so I think that just playing along, exploring, keeping your mind open and keeping that, using that access balance and support formula can - that's one formula. And, you know, and the other thing that we all know is that there's no answer here.

MARTIN: OK. Well, that's a good excuse to talk about this again.


MARTIN: All right. Warren Buckleitner is a father of two. He's the editor of Children's Technology Review. He was with us from New Jersey. Here with me in Washington, D.C., Julie Guyot-Diangone. She's a mother of two and a staff member for a member of Congress. And Lisa Guernsey is the author of "Screen Time: How Electronic Media from Baby Videos to Educational Software Affects Your Young Child," also a mom of two.

Thank you all so much for joining us.


GUERNSEY: Thank you.



MARTIN: And that's our program for today. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow.


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