When should you introduce kids to technology?
It seems nowadays kids are born with an iPhone, iPad and laptops attached to their fingers. Often they know how to use computers and gadgets better than their parents.
“In this day and age, children will be exposed to technology one way or another. Children learn from the people around them. If we use it, they will want to use it. It will happen whether we want it or not,” said Judy Watkinson, a professor of early childhood education at Arizona Western College.
A report revealed the gifts kids aged 6-12 most want are an iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, narrowly outranking computers and handheld gaming systems, according to FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com.
“With more tots aged 2-5 able to play video games or downloadable apps than ride a bike or tie their shoelaces, knowing when to start your kids on different types of technology is one of the most important questions today's digital parent must ask,” said Johner Riehl, founder and editorial director of the website.
He noted that kids “climb a continuum of media consumption,” usually starting with gaming on a smartphone, which graduates to video game consoles.
“This leads to communicating with others, which eventually lead to iPods and then cell phones. Suddenly the whole world is at kids' fingertips with the ability to connect to who and what they want when they want to.”
Experts call for using common sense. If kids are too young they will only bang on the keyboards and mouse. And game systems are too complicated for tiny hands.
“Parents should wait for children in the younger ages. And make it age-appropriate,” Watkinson said.
Too much too soon is inappropriate, she added. “It's like letting them drive at 12.”
Chris Shulgan, a blogger on goodmenproject.com, struggled in deciding whether to buy his 4-year-old a Wii console. After using his grandparents' console, the boy became an expert at a game, zipping through the levels and beating his dad.
When the boy started asking for his own Wii, Shulgan's first instinct was to say, “No! No video games. It's too early!”
But then he thought about the French and how they reportedly have lower rates of alcoholism because they grow up drinking wine.
“If you start a kid on video games early in his life, is he more likely to have a healthy relationship with video games later in life? By introducing video games to my son now, am I making it less likely he'll become a translucent-skinned shut-in later in life, like in his adolescence?” he wrote.
He asked Joshua Ostroff, a video-critic and father of a 13-month-old toddler, whether he would let his son play video games when he was older.
Ostroff's reply surprised him: “He's already playing video games. Or at least he plays with the iPad.” His son likes to play a virtual piano app and another that makes fireworks explode with his fingers.
“I see nothing wrong in general with kids playing video games. Thing is, you can't just say ‘video games.' That's like saying, is it OK for kids to see movies. It's OK for kids to see some movies,” Ostroff told Shulgan.
“There are ratings for video games, and I wouldn't let him play anything above his age group,” he added.
Watkinson agrees, noting, “I personally believe parents need to pay attention to ratings. A lot of violence is not appropriate. Still, as a society, we don't know how so much violence affects young children.”
Her concern is the lack of human interaction that comes with technology. “Screen time is not warm and cuddly.”
Lack of human interaction also delays the development of communication skills, she said. “(Screen time) is OK in small doses, but it's not a two-way conversation.”
However, Ostroff noted that video games that call for active participation may help with a child's brain development. But, he stressed, he wouldn't allow video games to replace physical activities and interactive playing.
Allowing kids who are too young to use the iPhone, iPod or iPad could cause them stress and anxiety, according to a game producer and software developer who posted the article “How to introduce kids to video games” on http://thenextbiggame.com.
“These devices are not intuitive. iPhone game controls a lot of times require accurate tilt movements and swipe gestures that kids can't do. Kids see their parents and older sibling using these devices and they want to as well. But in a few minutes, a lot of kids just get too stressed out. They end up frantically mashing buttons or swiping all over the screen.”
He suggested starting off younger children with older game systems like Atari, which are slower and simpler to control.
And , he added, “Don't give a 2-year-old your $200 smart phone and then be surprised when you get it back all jacked up.”
PBS Parents writer Laura Lewis Brown, in the article “When you should introduce your child to a smartphone or tablet,” recommends waiting until preschool.
“Just because toddlers like to push buttons and watch videos does not mean they are ready for a computer,” she said.
Dr. Carolyn Jaynes, a learning designer for Leapfrog Enterprises, notes that children under 2 years learn best from real-world experiences and interactions.
“Each minute spent in front of a screen-based device is a minute when your child is not exploring the world and using their senses, which is extremely important in their development process,” she said.
“However, by age 3, many children are active media users and can benefit from electronic media with educational content.”
Some children will be ready depending on the level of supervision required.
“In a supervised environment, children as young as 4 or 5 are able to engage in learning activities using smartphones and tablets of all kinds,” said Jeannie Galindo, supervisor of instructional technology at a school district in Florida.
“In an unsupervised environment, I wouldn't recommend a smartphone or tablet purchase for a child until at least between the ages of 11 and 13.”
As kids enter elementary school, many families will consider introducing a video game console to their household, Riehl observed. When that happens, he recommends disabling the online features for kids who are under 7.
Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, suggests combining technology with “real world” interaction, for example, allowing a child to take photos of bugs with an iPhone, then going online together to read more about the insects.
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (928) 539-6856. Find her on Facebook at Facebook.com/YSMaraKnaub or on Twitter at @YSMaraKnaub.