By two, most kids can navigate touch screens

By Lisa Rapaport (Reuters Health) - By age two, many kids can unlock and navigate touch screens with ease, swiping their way through apps much like their parents do, a small Irish study suggests. That’s because regular use of smartphones and tablets appears widespread – even among children as young as one – and most parents who have touch-screen devices download apps and games specifically for their toddlers to use, the study found. “Traditional play in toddlers is changing rapidly, and touchscreens are becoming the most frequently used 'toy’ for many children,” said senior study author Deirdre Murray, a pediatrics researcher at the University College Cork in Ireland. Whether this is good or bad for child development remains to be seen, and may very much depend on what types of apps children use, how much time they spend staring at tiny screens and how much the technology helps kids engage with the world around them, Murray added by email. “Moving from passive television to interactive apps is probably a good thing,” Murray said. “Children learn best when adults interact with them in their play and learning, no matter what the toy.” To assess how tech-savvy toddlers might be, Murray and colleagues surveyed 82 parents of children ages one to three years over a five-month period in 2014. Most respondents – 82 percent – owned a smartphone or tablet, and 87 percent of parents with touch-screen devices let their child use the gadgets, too. Kids got to use the devices for around 15 minutes a day on average, and about two-thirds of them had their own apps on their parents’ tablets or phones. Nine out of 10 parents who owned a tablet or smartphone said their child was able to swipe, while half reported that their kid could unlock the screen and nearly two-thirds thought their child could search for specific touch screen features. Because touch-screens appear so simple for many toddlers to navigate, the devices might prove helpful in assessing or aiding development, the researchers conclude in a report scheduled for publication in Archives of Disease in Childhood. The technology might also foster communication skills in non-verbal children or kids with certain cognitive or developmental disorders, the authors suggest. This study, however, didn’t assess the potential benefits or harms of using touch-screens or explore what types of apps or games might be best for children to use or avoid. Still, the findings reflect a reality of parenting in the digital age, said Dr. Larry Rosen, of California State University Dominguez Hills. “Parenting is tough and draining with two-year-olds and to be able to engage their attention for periods of time with simple, easy-to-use touch-screen technology is, for many parents, a gift,” Rosen, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. Many doctors, though, backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, advise parents to avoid screen time before age two because it’s thought to interfere with learning and language development. These recommendations predate the invention of smartphones and tablets. “I think those recommendations no longer make sense,” Rosen said. Instead, parents who do let children use mobile devices should focus on making sure screen time occurs only in moderation and without taking away from play involving people. They should also consider three things when handing tablets and phones over to their children. “First, the apps must be educational,” Rosen said. “Second, they should involve parental play time, and finally, they should not be used for more than 30 minutes at a time followed by interactive, creative free play.” SOURCE: Archives of Disease in Childhood, released December 21, 2015.