Toddlers and Technology: Touchscreen Devices

By Janet Pinto, Chief Academic Officer, Curriki

On May 23rd, Diane Rhem’s radio show on National Public Radio in the U.S. featured a panel discussion and live call-ins on the topic of Touch-screen Devices and Very Young Children.

“Parents are increasingly allowing their very young children to play with iPads, iPhones and other touch-screen devices. Please join us for a conversation about interactive applications and brain development.”  – May 23, 2012


The panel included representatives from the New America Foundation, the Wall Street Journal, Common Sense Media, and the University of Wisconsin.

  • Lisa Guernsey, Director, Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation
  • Ben Worthen, Reporter, Wall Street Journal
  • Heather Kirkorian, Assistant Professor, human development and family studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison
  • Liz Perle, Editor in Chief, Common Sense Media `

Toddlers and young children, aged 2 and 3 and 4, are increasingly gaining at least some access to touchscreen devices such as iPads and other tablets, or touchscreen phones.

Are these devices conducive to learning and healthy development? How do we know the difference between children being engaged and ‘zoning out’, i.e. entering a trance-like state? Do they learn letters and numbers earlier using these devices? Or is a tablet simply an electronic babysitter?

A study at Georgetown University found that interactive apps do lead to learning, but passive video does not. But the research with very young children around touchscreen devices is basically non-existent to date.

Children like the seamless interactivity with a touchscreen. But Ben, the Wall Street Journal reporter, ended up taking the iPad away from his child as he felt he was seeing trance-like behavior and his son was becoming whiny. And he didn’t want to stop using the device. In contrast, with Lego blocks his child is in control, whereas an app dictates what happens.

One of the concerns is that tablet apps, although interactive, channel a child’s creativity into the limited range of functionality within that app. In the real 3D world, with blocks or dolls or stuffed animals, a child’s imagination is free to roam widely. And of course engagement with the real world, with parents and adults, and face-to-face interaction are very necessary – touchscreens could interfere with that engagement.

On a more positive note, one show listener reported that her 4-year old autistic son has seen vast improvement with language since he was able to use a tablet.

Certainly this technology is part of the changing world and learning to use it will be necessary for children at a suitable age and to a reasonable degree and with appropriate applications. We know that children do adapt quickly to these new devices. And more and more of our educational materials are moving to apps on tablets, or being accessed via tablets.

The research is not in yet as to what the best practices are for providing these devices for use by toddlers. What do you think?

You can access the full audio here and the transcript here. (The Diane Rehm Show is produced at WAMU 88.5 and distributed by NPR, NPR Worldwide, and SIRIUS XM satellite radio. It can be streamed online at

2 responses to “Toddlers and Technology: Touchscreen Devices

  1. Pingback: Toddlers and Technology: Touchscreen Devices | Curriki’s Blog « harmonteach

  2. Devon Grimmer

    Satellite radio is very nice because i can access music from anywhere. The only downside is that the unit itself is a bit expensive. *.,;” head over to our new webpage

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