Swipe, pinch and tap

Toddlers have become masters at using touch screen devices and they’re not slowing down any time soon. But is it safe for your toddler to use touch screens at such a young age? Dani-Elle Dubé reports.

mother and baby child with tablet computer on the couch at homeZachary was just two years old when he first picked up an iPod. At first, he didn’t know what to do, but it took him no time at all to figure it out.

Now four-and-a-half, Zachary is a whiz at anything with a touch screen.

His younger sister, Rylie, was even younger when she was introduced to the technology. She was just a year old when she began playing with touch screens.

Now, at the age of three, she’s just as good as her brother.

“They’re pretty absorbed in it,” says stay-at-home-mom Nancy Taylor. “The younger one is actually quite demanding and always wants to use mommy’s iPad.”

Whether the family is out shopping or visiting the doctor’s office, the iPad is never far away.

“It’s sort of not at their disposal necessarily, but it’s available to them at my discretion whenever they want it or whenever I need to take care of one of them and need the other to be still,” says Taylor. “It’s a distraction tool.”

The kids will sit and play with educational apps like Word World, as well as gaming apps. Zachary’s favourite is Lego and Riley likes Mr. Potato Head.

But recent studies from the Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York found that toddlers who played non-educational games on touch screens had lower verbal test scores.

It also found that there was no statistical difference in developmental scores in toddlers who played educational games compared to non-educational.

According to child life specialist Christina Vander Ploeg, toddlers are at a very sensitive stage where they want to explore their physical environment and increase in exposure to screen time can hinder interactions with parents and exploration.

“Toddlers need to develop gross motor and fine motor skill,” says Vander Ploeg. “They need opportunities for socializing and learn cause and effect.

“They need to develop their sense of autonomy on their own, building up blocks and watching them fall down and have reactions to that … [Touch screens] don’t allow these things to happen.”

Vander Ploeg also says that handing a child an iPad during a tantrum is not a good idea.

“A tantrum is a learning opportunity for a little one to learn about self regulation and for a parent to learn how to support their child during one. It’s a way for them to express their emotions and let parents validate their feelings and tell them that what they’re feeling is OK.”

Countless studies have been conducted on the potential effects of the iPad and similar devices on toddlers, but it seems there are conflicting conclusions from experts.

Research from the University of Wisconsin reported that highly interactive educational apps could be beneficial, while the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that excessive exposure can lead to obesity, sleep problems and behavioural problems.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” says Taylor about letting her kids use touch screens. “But it’s all within reason. I have no problem letting them use it in moderation.”

And that’s key, says Vander Ploeg.

“It’s each parent’s responsibility to choose what’s appropriate for their own child. The AAP discourages the use [of touch screens] under two years. But my recommendation for children two and over is for parents to monitor the screen time and usage.

“Always act as a role model and balance screen time with hobbies and outdoor play.”