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Generation of Tech-Savvy Toddlers Go for Tablets Over Teddy Bears

March 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
More and more, toddlers are grasping for tablets and smart phones over traditional toys. The Atlantic magazine explores this trend in its cover story, "The Touch-Screen Generation." Author Hanna Rosin joins Ray Suarez to discuss apps designed for kids, the impact of technology on childhood and whether parents should be worried.
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RAY SUAREZ: And to our second story about very young children, this on the rapidly growing use of mobile technology among the toddler set. That’s the subject of this month’s cover story of The Atlantic.

Writer Hanna Rosin looks at the new touchscreen generation: why toddlers are learning to use tablets and smartphones before they’re even out of diapers and the questions those changes are raising.

Rosin joins me now.

And, Hanna, I guess because my youngest is a teenager, I have to admit that I was unaware that the — the amount — of the amount of smartphone and tablet use among the youngest children, two and even younger.

HANNA ROSIN, The Atlantic: Absolutely.

It would seem alien to a parent with older children. I have older children, but I also have a little baby who came out exactly in the same time as the iPad and — who came of age, I should say — and it’s kind of alarming watching a little kid — he was still in diapers at the time — be so utterly competent with this piece of technology, almost as if he was born knowing how to do it.

He can swipe his fingers. It’s extremely intuitive, very different from how my other children interacted with technology, which is me teaching them how to use a mouse and what the relationship is between what they’re doing with their hand and what’s happening on the screen. With him, it’s a different story. It’s like he was born to the technology.

RAY SUAREZ: So, we know that kids are on these devices. What are they doing, what kinds of activities?

HANNA ROSIN: There’s a whole explosion of apps designed for kids.

And what I found was that parents are extremely confused. The researchers found this the pass-back effect, which means we pass our phones back to our children, but we’re very ambivalent. We’re not sure if it’s a good thing. Is this wrecking their brains? But, on the other hand, we live in a technological world.

I think, largely, there’s a lot of anxiety out there, so what I try and do in the story is alleviate the anxiety a little bit, explain to parents that there are bodies of research here and that there are extremely good apps and things that children can learn from this technology, and it’s here. So we should accept it and learn how to use it in the best way possible.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, since you mentioned the brain, do we know what’s going on in the brain of young children using touchscreen devices that’s different in the nature of interaction, in the level of engagement, different from, let’s say, sitting and watching a television show?

HANNA ROSIN: We do know about that.

We do seem to know that the more interactive technology is, the more children learn from it. That’s a little different than what’s going on in their brains. That science is still developing. But we know that they are extremely engaged when they can hear a voice talking back to them, when they feel like the technology is including them and listening to their voice.

Television has been studied for a good 30 years, because when “Sesame Street” came out, people found that alarming, that there was television designed for very young children. And so they began to study it pretty closely. And just recently, there was something called the pause developed.

And for any parents of young children, you will recognize it from the show “Blue’s Clues” or “Dora the Explorer,” where the narrator asks the question, and then there will be a pause and the child gets to answer the question. And that was researchers’ first clue that if you had the child interact in some way, that created a much richer experience for them.

And apps do that automatically. Almost all apps are forms of interaction, where the child can make something happen, the child can talk and the voice gets echoed back. The child can draw a picture and then narrate it. So the kind of technology you find on smartphones and iPads is much more enriching for children, let’s say, than even television was.

RAY SUAREZ: Are some of the misgivings that you report on in your story just the latest technological iteration of the sort of technology-based anxiety that comes along with every new technology? You mentioned people’s misgivings about “Sesame Street.” That was the late 1960s.

HANNA ROSIN: Yes, yes.

I mean, it happened with the novel, right? So, any time a new technology comes and we feel like it’s about to be ubiquitous, we get nervous about what it’s going to do either to the morals of our young children. Right now, we’re in a neuroscience, neurobiology age, so we worry about the brains of young children.

But each generation brings worry that this is not childhood as we know it. And I think we need to get past that phase, because, in fact, these things are ubiquitous. They’re very different from television. They’re there on the counter. They’re in your purse. They’re on the kitchen table. They’re really a part of our lives in the way that no other technology ever has been.

And so I think we just need to accept that young children can do interesting things with this technology.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you come away from your reporting with any rules for the road, some ways to discern between good screen time and bad screen time in the final analysis?

HANNA ROSIN: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

I do talk about some apps that I think are pretty good and why I think they’re pretty good. Largely, this is a question of your individual child. I actually have different rules for different children. I have one child who’s prone to sort of doing and watching and being engaged way too much, so I put strict time limits on him.

But with other — my other two kids, I let them explore quite a bit. And I actually did an interesting experiment with my youngest son, which I write about in the story, where I let him have free access to the iPad at some point. And, in fact, he treated it almost like he treats every other toy, his trucks, his puzzles. He was sort of obsessive about it for a couple of weeks and then just dropped it and forgot about it, just like he does with every other toy.

So I think interesting things can happen if we just relax our paranoia and nervousness.

RAY SUAREZ: But you wouldn’t want it to exclude everything else?

HANNA ROSIN: No, that’s pretty clear.

And there’s a couple books which I mention in the story which give you pretty good rules. And one of them is, if you find that your child is doing that almost to the exclusion of other things, or doing that in a way that you feel is too much — that’s not to say at every half-hour, you should say, why is he playing the iPad? He should be outside or she should be outside.

It’s not a zero-sum game. But if your child is doing it way too much or seems way too drawn to it, you will know it.

RAY SUAREZ: Hanna Rosin, thanks so much.

HANNA ROSIN: Thank you.