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When should we expose toddlers to technology?

  • Technology can help our children learn, but at what cost?
  • New research shows tots exposed to devices at earlier ages
When should we expose toddlers to technology?
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HLN's Kyra Phillips spoke with industry leaders during a hangout session on Google Plus. 

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We’ve all seen it: the look of intense concentration a toddler gets when they are handed a digital device like an iPad or an iPhone. They’re pacified, and it can be difficult to get the device back. Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, says those devices are "like the crack cocaine of the toy world."

Yet we continue to do it -- we put the device in their little hands. New research from the nonprofit Common Sense Media shows kids' average daily use  of mobile devices has tripled to 15 minutes a day. And the number of kids under two who have used a digital device has gone from 10 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2013. 

Perhaps it’s their astonishing ability to master it so quickly that makes some parents think we’re giving them a head start.


"Our kids are smarter than us when it comes to using technology, but they are also probably dumber than us when it comes to having a conversation,"  Small said. "Noticing non-verbal cues, recognizing the facial expression and the emotional content of the face takes learning skills. And if we are online 24/7, we are not going to learn those skills."

So when should we start to expose our children to the technology we use on a daily basis?

Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics upheld their recommendations to discourage a child's exposure to screen time before the age of 2. By doing so, the implication is that all screens are created equal. But not everyone agrees with this basic premise. 

"Not all screen time (or apps) are equal. For infants and toddlers, the best tech experience is active. So we encourage parent-child interactions and allow for exploration and play," Tony Favorito, Director of Product Design at Fisher-Price, said. 

"Just look at a kid who is watching TV; there’s a different look on their face than when they are interacting with something on an iPad. It’s that TV glaze that freaks me out. I get anxious about [my daughter] watching too much television," Farah Miller, managing editor of Huffington Post Parents, said.  

Social correspondent and chief evangelist for the website Tracky Sarah Evans said she finds the same to be true with her son. "We're interacting [with the device] much like we interact when we’re reading a book. We’re touching things. We’re talking about them. We’re reacting together versus that solo, one-on-one experience with the TV. I've been much more crazy about TV time than anything related to technology."

Favorito says it's this type of interactivity parents should look for when they test out apps for their kids. 

“While children’s exposure to technology has change, they are still kids and still play the same -- social play, role play, object play. Some of the best tech-play experiences for children build off of traditional play patterns and toys," Favorito said. "Children want to use technology socially and share the experiences with others -- an example contrary to the myth that technology isolates."

The interactivity of a device is not enough to convince Jonathan Anker, parenting and digital life editor for, to let his kids play with it.

"In general, they become isolated in that digital universe," he said. "The fact is, because of its addictive qualities, it shuts them off from other opportunities -- at least temporarily. What are you sacrificing when they are interacting with these other toys?"

That's exactly what parents want to know. But the truth is, there's no solid research. "Once we design a study, the technology we're studying is already obsolete," Small said. "We can only go with what we feel in our gut and what we see in older children." 

"I could see it with my own kids when they were growing up -- if they spent too much time with the devices, they got grumpy and wouldn't look you in the eye. And if we took them away, they became more human," Small continued. "Talk to other parents; they will tell you the same thing. Talk to teachers, educators, they will tell you the same thing. Some things you don't have to study systematically to feel concerned about it."

This pull between the traditional and advanced technology uncertainty can also bring a sense of shame for parents.

"Technology tends to end up in the category with things that parents feel like they shouldn’t be doing," Miller said. "I sort of joke that when I get to the restaurant and I’ve forgotten the crayons and the paper, if I have the drawing app on my phone, I don’t want people to see that now she’s playing on my phone!"

But Evans said, "We have to learn to forgive ourselves; we haven't damaged our kids forever. There are so many things as parents we can punish ourselves for, so just remember there's always a fresh start."

Biologically speaking, Evans is correct. “The brain is resilient," said Small. "If you take these kids away from the screen and you get them to start playing, they adapt. And they start enjoying it."

For more conversations like this, watch Raising America every week day at 12 p.m. ET on HLN. And be sure to tweet @KyraHLN with the #RaisingAmerica hashtag or leave your thoughts on And click here to find out how you can confess! 

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