Tech for Tots


Jan 20, 2015

A toddler holds an electronic tablet

Max Langley holds an electronic tablet

Photo by Lori Shepler

Was that iPad stocking-stuffer exactly the right holiday gift, or was it too much too soon?

Scarlett Langley was a toddler when she got an electronic tablet. The first-generation iPad, which she dubbed “Elmo Potty” because of an educational video loaded on it, was a gift from her grandfather, a law professor and pioneer in computer law.

“My dad lives nearby and he’s always been deeply involved in my kids’ lives,” explained mom Cindal Langley, 28. “Scarlett, almost from the beginning, loved to climb in his lap, to grab his smartphone and to play with it. So he got her an iPad and we thought, ‘Well, what’s the harm? She’ll get bored with it and will move on fast.’”

Scarlett Langley, her brother, Max, enjoy some screen time with their mother, Cindal

Scarlett Langley and her brother, Max, enjoy some screen time with their mother, Cindal. The evidence is still lacking for children ages 2 and younger, but studies increasingly show that there can be benefits of tech use for older toddlers when used appropriately.

Photo by Lori Shepler

She didn’t. Now almost 6 years old, Scarlett’s experiences and those of youngsters like her exemplify issues that experts at the RAND Corporation are researching, with the support of the PNC Foundation, especially through Grow Up Great, PNC’s $350 million, multi-year initiative to help prepare children from birth to age five for success in school and life.

“Technology literacy plays an important role in a child’s ability to succeed in school and later life,” said Lindsay Daugherty, a policy researcher and lead author of a recent report on tech and kids. She and her RAND colleague, senior economist Rafiq Dossani, have noted that children ages 3 to 5, on a typical day, spend an average of four hours with technology, and its use is increasing among children of all ages. In one of their series of new studies on the topic, they wrote, “We need to shift the conversation from ‘Should young children use technology?’ to ‘How can we use technology with young children to maximize its benefits?’”

Technology’s use, especially in education of the young, can provoke divisive reactions, the researchers said. Some studies and advocates say it can build reading, math, motor, socioeconomic, and cognitive skills; others see it doing the opposite, diminishing children’s development of crucial social skills and interactions and discouraging them from creative thinking, play, and robust exercise.

RAND, with PNC, has reached out to parents, educators, researchers, policymakers, advocates, and others to launch a sustained, national conversation to address unresolved questions about technology and early childhood education and to provide evidence-based policy responses to ensure tech betters youngsters’ lives and learning.

They convened a major forum in Pittsburgh and presented a series of reports—fresh research and perspectives providing both a broad overview and closer scrutiny of key issues about tots and technology.

“Why not let them learn the best ways to use this stuff?”

Cindal Langley

Tech’s a regular topic at the Langley house, where mom Cindal contrasts her views with those of her husband, Kevin. “With Scarlett and, now, her younger brother, Max, I’m looking at their tech use and asking, ‘Why not let them learn the best ways to use this stuff?’ while Kevin is asking, ‘Why do they need to get it now while they’re so little?’ We make sure our kids are social and socialized. They’re active and love to play outside. We’re not just sticking our kids in front of a device and leaving them. We’re looking at technology and realizing how important it’s going to be to them—how big it is already—and we want to ensure they get a head start.”

“Why do they need to get it now while they’re so little?”

Kevin Langley

Langley described the time and care she devotes to her kids’ tech lives. She carefully chooses media they consume. She tests the software and apps and screens videos they watch on devices. These all must be educational, engaging, interactive, and feature positive and interesting characters. “We want technology to enhance our kids’ education and lives,” she said. “It should offer a clear benefit.”

In Oakland, agreeing with Langley, Davina Dickens reflected on the early tech experiences of her daughter, Sophia, 7, and son, Justin, 5. “Sophia probably started intensely using an iPad when she was 4, while Justin got into it probably at 3,” Dickens recalled. “She started slowly, then as she got older, she figured out things that interested her online and with apps. But Justin, he started playing on an iPhone and then he was really into it.”

Her son, she said, loves to play educational games on one of the two family iPads; her daughter likes crafts and seeks out videos online to learn how to make toy bracelets with rubber bands. “I monitor their use closely,” Dickens said, noting that dad Tyrone helps her keep the youngsters tech use in balance with other activities.

“I feel like technology’s a good thing/bad thing,” Dickens added. “The kids seem to learn things faster than I do and they know tech things already that I don’t. There are times I’d rather see them reading a book, and I try to buy apps more geared to education, but letting them play games every now and then is not a problem.”

Underscoring points made by RAND researchers—that busy parents need to stay engaged and informed about youngsters’ early education and educators need to find ways to inform and involve families—Dickens and Langley both said they have been pleased with how their youngsters’ preschools, kindergartens, and elementary schools teach kids about using technology. Dickens noted this learning can be hit or miss in her area.

“There are places nearby more prestigious and wealthy and some that are poorer,” she said. “But we’re lucky because our school and its community are active and the parents and families really want technology to be a good part of our youngsters’ education and lives.”

As for Scarlett and Max, on a recent gray afternoon, they both were busy at play on their tablets, giggling and bouncing between tech and old-fashioned play in their grandfather’s living room. While Scarlett’s glee with her iPad activities was evident, the most she would say is that she would be “very, very sad” if she couldn’t use devices.

“Technology has been such an integral part of her life that it’s beyond second nature. She doesn’t know a world without it,” observed her grandfather Michael Scott.

Its influence also has been clear: On a big trip to France, the family had to ask a local for directions. The adults were perplexed by his reply. But Scarlett, who had an early fascination with apps to learn French, piped up: “Mommy, he said to go right.” And she was right.

The Digital Divide

Walk down the aisle of any computer or toy store to check out kids’ computing devices, software, applications, videos, and online services, and you’ll get it: This stuff isn’t cheap! It changes fast, it’s complicated, and there’s a dazzling—even daunting—array of product choices. Yet studies indicate that a digital divide—a gap between technology’s haves and have-nots—manifests early on, in terms of not only access but also learning. For instance, kids in poorer areas are more likely to be taught to use computers for drill or practice, as opposed to their peers in wealthier spots, who tap technology in innovative ways and to support development of higher-order reasoning skills.

RAND experts have not only joined the chorus of concern about potential problems arising out of the digital divide; they have offered research-based ways to better frame policy discussions and proposals to address these pressing challenges. They urge policymakers and practitioners to define technology’s appropriate use in early childhood education and, once this is clearer, to determine how best to support its effective use with devices, connectivity, software, and other components. Parents and families will need help so they play positive roles in seeing that technology improves their youngsters’ learning and lives. Those who educate students aged 3 to 5 will need support and training, too.

Who Gets a Computer?

Kids Age 5 or Younger, Who Used a Computer, in 2012
  • Fewer than 30% with a family income of less than $25,000 per year
  • 66% with a family income of $75,000 or more per year

Infographic: Who gets a computer?

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