It’s commonplace to see a toddler wielding an iPad that seems too large for his or her use. Young children, whose fingers are still too small to reach the home keys on a computer keyboard, can deftly navigate a smart phone or tablet.
Before my cousin could read, she could use her mom’s iPad. A few years back, when she was in kindergarten my cousin asked if she could play on my tablet. “Sure,” I responded and handed it to her. I left her to her own devices. About ten minutes later I saw that she had started a new game on one of my apps, thereby deleting the progress of work that I’d been doing. She looked up and smiled. The damage had been done. Of course I couldn’t be too upset at my cousin. Now, years later, I am reminded of this event.
A recent study led by Hilda K. Kabali tells us what we already thought we knew. A group of researchers surveyed the parents of 350 children between 6 months to 4 years of age to learn about the use and exposure to mobile media devices. This work centers on an urban, low-income, and minority community in particular. Of the 350 children, 96% had used a mobile device and 75% of four year olds even had access to their own mobile device.
Parents in the study used the devices in two main ways for their children: 1) “digital pacifiers” and 2) educational tools. Most parents reported that they let their kids play on a mobile device to calm them in public spaces or while the parent was doing chores or running errands. Educational apps are also a staple to young children’s media use. Although YouTube and entertainment apps were popular, parents reported that they downloaded many educational apps for their kids.
This high exposure to digital media is a mixed bag. Our society, in many ways, revolves around technology. This is a fact, and should not be seen as a “for better or worse” situation. Take for example, the case of a book. The content of a book, for example, will be the same on a Kindle and in hardback. The benefits of using an e-reader are many. One can see what other people have highlighted, look up words, and keep track of many books at once. Beyond the nostalgic feel of flipping pages of a paperback book in your hands, I wonder what gets lost in the digital realm. One study actually found that people retain more information from reading a paper book as compared to an e-reader.
Kabali’s did not aim to address the impact of mobile media use on the cognitive, social, or emotional development of children. This work, however, does raise new questions. How closely are kids being monitored while on these devices? Are mobile devices another obstacle to meaningful parent-child interaction? Are these children better equipped for a tech-centered world? We don’t know. With more research, we can determine the positive and negative impact of early and high digital media exposure.