Raising ‘digitods’



Technology and toddlers — how worried should we be?

The key to raising digitods is maintaining a healthy balance.

Today’s toddlers are growing up in a very different world than their parents did: a digital world.

Most families today own at least one touch-screen device — whether it’s a smartphone, handheld device or tablet — and toddlers are instinctively drawn to them. The lights, the sounds, and of course the considerable amount of attention parents give the devices turn them into compelling magnets for little children.

This leaves today’s parents with a new crop of questions: Do we embrace toddler apps with open arms? How developmentally appropriate is this technology for our little ones? What are the benefits and disadvantages of this digital era when it comes to our toddlers?

Patti Summers, an early childhood educator for more than 30 years and the head of the parenting program at the Mandell School in Manhattan, was inspired to write a book on this very topic when she started to notice big differences in the children entering her toddler program.

The result, “Toddlers on Technology,” is a collaborative effort between Summers, neuropsychologist Dr. Ann Desollar-Hale, and economist Heather Ibrahim-Leathers —combining their experience and knowledge in early childhood education, clinical neuropsychology and practical parenting.

The book serves as a guide to help parents navigate the raising of these digitally-influenced toddlers — or “digitods.”

What makes these “digitods” different from previous generations?

“Digitods are extremely enthusiastic about learning,” says Summers. “They are training themselves to learn at a very early age because they can learn without pressure.”

As Summers notes, a device like the iPad doesn’t care when you get the right answer. Instead, a child receives praise whenever he or she gets the right answer.

“That can make learning a lot of fun,” she says. “I’ve seen 2-year-olds who may not be able to speak in complete sentences yet, but can name their colors, shapes and some of their numbers and letters. And that is an enormous change.”

There are countless educational apps designed specifically for very young children — 10 of which are reviewed in depth and recommended in the book.

Digitods are certainly learning basic technology skills when using a touch-screen device, but they are also exposed to everything from traditional numbers and letters to foreign languages and animals through fun, interactive games.

Amanda Rushkowski, a mother from Round Top, says her 2-year-old son loves spending time with her smartphone.

“Charlie has learned about various animals and bugs from an app that names different animals and bugs for the letters of the alphabet and gives a piece of information about each,” she says.

In Lagrangeville, Isabel Dichiara’s 3-year-old son, Sebastian, is learning to spell thanks to her smartphone. “He absolutely loves Endless Reader and Endless Spelling.”

Just like anything else, quality matters when it comes to educational children’s applications. In “Toddlers on Technology,” Summers identifies three categories to keep in mind when determining an application’s effectiveness: navigation, content and rewards.

Immediate access, ease-of-use, visual attractiveness and exciting rewards are all part of what  appeal to young users and will keep them coming back for more playing and learning.

Aside from the educational benefits, most parents also admit that allowing their children to use touch-screen devices makes their own lives a little bit easier.

We can all relate to those times when we’re trying desperately to keep a toddler quietly entertained against all odds — in waiting rooms, restaurants, during baby’s nap, long car rides, etc. There’s no doubt that handing a child a device can be an easy solution to grabbing a few moments of much-needed peace.

“I don't like to rely on screen time a lot during our day, so I tend to limit it to only when I'm getting the baby to sleep or need to get something done quickly,” says Rushkowski.

Jennifer Bredin, a Beacon mom to 3-year-old Lena, allows her daughter to use a device while they’re waiting patiently at her older children’s weekly Taekwondo classes. “Sometimes it’s a lifesaver!”

Regardless of the benefits, many parents are still hesitant to put technology into the hands of their toddlers — and not just because an expensive device it may end up cracked or in the toilet. Their concerns are generally related to its age appropriateness or the possibility of it creating lack in other important areas of development such as empathy and curiosity.

Erin Spak, a Highland mom of 16-month-old Bryce, says of her son: “He is a young toddler who learns by exploring his environment and I think that introducing a device would take away from that. We feel that starting technology reliant habits now will encourage him to value those activities over reading books, playing outside, building with his blocks, and all of the things that he loves to do.”

Roxanne Ferber, a mom of twin 3-year-old girls living in Saugerties, says she and her husband made the decision not to introduce technology to their children just yet.

“I know this isn't typical of every family, but we decided we wanted our kids to be plugged into each other and life around them verses a virtual world,” she says. “We both did some research and found articles that made us feel like our decision was justified.”

At this point in time there is very limited scientific evidence on toddlers’ digital play and its effect on development, mainly because not enough time has passed since the proliferation of touch-screen devices for most studies to be completed. However, “Toddlers on Technology” offers information from a neuropsychological point of view and also summarizes some of the studies that have been done. This is a valuable resource for parents who want to dig deeper into this topic.

The key to raising digitods, according to Summers, is maintaining a healthy balance.

“Too much screen time isn’t good for anyone, including teenagers and adults,” she says. “What a child needs is a balanced day, filled with physical activity, playing with friends and engaging in imaginative play.”

Summers goes into much further detail on this subject in the book, including offering ideas for “see-saw activities,” or activities that complement what was learned on the digital device with real-life learning.

For example: “It’s fine to let your child play with an age-appropriate app for a while (we recommend 20 minutes for a 2-year-old). But then make sure you put down the iPad and do something in the real world that is related to the topic your child has just been learning about. If your child has looked at ‘Wheels on the Bus,’ for example, why not go out and look at buses, or go for a ride on one? If that’s not a possibility, why not build a bus in your living room with chairs and dolls for passengers?”

These activities help children make connections between the digital world and real world and expand on their learning.

Local parents are handling this issue of balance in different ways.

“I don't set specific limitations, but I have the tablets and they have to ask for them,” says Kayla Bradford, a Poughkeepsie mom to 4-year-old Chloe and 2-year-old Xander. “After a while, I take them away and tell them it’s time to play with toys instead.”

“We don't take the iPad with us outside the home,” says Dichiara, “and he doesn't play with our cell phones.”   

The issue of toddlers and technology is just one of the many modern parenting issues that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago. For more information on digitods, visit digitod.com. The site also offers reviews on recommended apps for young children, and practical tips on navigating this new and often perplexing aspect to parenting in a digital world.

Sarah Coppola lives in Port Ewen with her husband and two daughters. She can also be found at her website familyfriendlyhudsonvalley.com.