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Do Learning Apps for Toddlers Make Kids Smarter?

apps for toddlers

Are we helping or harming our kids by using mobile apps for teaching?

Screen time is a sensitive subject when it comes to kids, especially those that aren’t even in school yet. Some parents claim letting their infant or toddler watch educational TV or play with learning apps for toddlers on their phone is helping them become smarter. They’re talking about TV programs made for babies, or apps that teach skills like colors, numbers, and letters. It sounds great in theory: Why wouldn’t we use technology to get our kids ahead? But does it really work? Activist groups say no, apps don’t make toddlers smarter.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) recently lodged complaints with the FTC against two companies that were essentially claiming their apps would make kids smarter, which of course encourages parents to buy them. The problem is that there’s no research to support these claims. It’s like me saying this pen will make your handwriting better, so you buy it just because I said so. The CCFC’s Director, Susan Linn, states “The research shows that machines and screen media are a really ineffective way of teaching a baby language. What babies need for healthy brain development is active play, hands-on creative play, and face-to-face interaction.”

This is a debate that circles back to the infamous “Baby Einstein” videos. Marketers removed package information pronouncing the videos educational benefits after a complaint was filed by the same group in 2006, and eventually the company provided refunds for the videos.

I know I was completely against any screen time for my baby, and I got upset when my husband would watch TV or download apps for him. I even disliked having the TV on at all when he was an infant, terrified the background chatter would interfere with his brain development. Then I was alone with my toddler for almost 3 weeks — my toddler who hates to nap — and I needed anything that would give me a break, so I snuggled up on the couch with my son and turned on Chuggington. I loved the 10 minutes of rest I got, not to mention the oh-so-rare snuggles. I told myself it was okay because he loves trains. He also loves Elmo ABCs, and “I like to move it, move it” from Madagascar on YouTube, and poking animals to make sounds on the iPad. And although I appreciate the moment of rest, I sometimes wonder “Oh no, what am I doing to my child?!”

But how are we supposed to know if these screen-based programs are helping or hurting young children? The American Academy of Pediatrics states children under age 2 shouldn’t have any screen time and that it should be limited after that. They also mention that infant videos can delay language development and cause sleep disturbances. David Bickham, PhD, a scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health states, “Kids’ brains develop from social interaction and manipulating things in the real world, which you don’t get from the screen.” British pyschologist Dr Aric Sigman argues the case for literal screen addiction, saying too much screen time leads to even more screen time as kids grow into adults. The addiction is blamed on a chemical in the brain called dopamine, which is the same chemical that leads to sugar addiction and drug addiction. Sigman explains, “… dopamine is produced when we see something that is interesting or new, but it also has a second function. Dopamine is also the neurochemical involved in most addictions, it’s the reward chemical. There are concerns among neuroscientists that this dopamine being produced every single day for many years, through, for example, playing computer games, may change the reward circuitry in a child’s brain and make them more dependent on screen media.”

Scientists also argue that young kids aren’t able to comprehend a TV or computer screen as a part of their world, which is why watching a screen alone isn’t going to improve their intelligence. However, if a parent or caretaker interacts with the child in relation to what’s happening on the screen, that may provide education.

But what if we step away from the science and the studies? What do parents have to say?

One mom says although she’s anti-media for babies, she’s okay with screen time for her toddler in small doses. “Once your child is more aware of the world and not just in a trance from the flashing lights, TV can be a good option for downtime. One of the biggest concerns is your child not getting enough time to practice other skills, and by skills I mean regular baby stuff. But no one has time to give their toddler one-on-one playtime the entire day, and no toddler will play alone happily at all the exact times you need to accomplish something else. My now 2-year-old gets all sorts of playtime with me, plays happily by himself for long periods, and also has fussy times where TV chills him out and lets me cook dinner. He watches Blues Clues and Super Why, and with both shows he interacts with the characters and learns stuff. Like he knows all his letters and numbers and Super Why definitely started his interest in learning that.”

A former Montessori teacher says, “…children learn with their hands. [Maria Montessori] called them the ‘instruments of the mind’. There is a direct correlation between learning and physical manipulation (and remotes and handheld games do not count). Recent studies have shown that while watching TV or playing video games, only certain areas of the brain “light up” with activity, while others remain dormant — there is no electrical activity or engagement. Some believe that this is where the increase in ADHD comes from — because not all of the brain is engaged at the same rate or frequency, so some parts are speedier than others. Working with the hands lights up the WHOLE brain.” She then points out, “On the other hand, sometimes Mama needs a BREAK.”

So what do you think — are mobile apps and TV shows helpful for teaching toddlers? Or are they setting them up for problems down the road?

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