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Experts: Whether TV or tablet, limiting kids’ time before a screen wise

About 40 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds have used a smartphone, tablet or video iPod, according to a new study by the nonprofit group Common Sense Media.
About 40 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds have used a smartphone, tablet or video iPod, according to a new study by the nonprofit group Common Sense Media.

Patty Werber totes along her iPad and iPhone with her when she visits her 3- and 4-year-old nieces in Chicago.

“Then I’ll turn on the Brain Game apps for them,” said Werber, of Huntley.

Some applications for hand-held electronic devices available these days can serve as teaching tools for children as young as toddlers, she said.

“A 2-year-old can experience cognitive shift,” Werber said. “A 2-year-old may not know what’s happening, but they can use fingers to move something on a screen that can help with cognitive development. Brain games, puzzles, anything that’s spatial … these kinds of games can help preschoolers develop hand-eye coordination.”

However, Werber, who has 40 years of childcare experience, urges moderation and values the use of “concrete objects” such as wooden blocks, and social interaction over electronic interaction.

Werber usually limits the time she spends with her nieces playing with the digital apps to 15 minutes and then leads them to another activity, such as going out for a walk.

“Of course, if the iPads or iPhones are used as a substitute for personal interaction, face-to-face, then children are missing out on what they would get when they interact with people who love them,” she said.

Digital devices, including smartphones and iPads, increasingly make up the media diet of children, a national study that came out late last year sums up.

Four out of 10 2- to 4-year-olds and half of 5- to 8-year-olds are using electronic devices, according to Common Sense Media’s new Program for the Study of Children and Media.

The program’s “Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America” documented young children’s use of new digital media devices. Half, 52 percent, of all children from under a year old to 8-year-olds have access to mobile devices such as a smartphone. And 38 percent of the children this age have used one of those devices; 10 percent of children 0 to 1 year old, 39 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds, and more than half of 5- to 8-year-olds.

Furthermore, the study found that on a typical day, one in 10 0- to 8-year-olds uses the digital devices to play games or watch videos. The amount of time they spent using the devices averaged 43 minutes a day, researchers learned.

Common Sense Media’s report was based on a randomly recruited, nationwide survey of 1,384 parents of children ages 0 to 8 years old in 2011.

“The results make it clear that media plays a large and growing role in children’s lives, even the youngest of children,” said Vicky Rideout, a senior adviser to Common Sense Media and director of previous studies on children and media. “As we grapple with issues such as the achievement gap and childhood obesity, educators, policymakers, parents, and public health leaders need access to comprehensive and credible research data to inform their efforts.”

Doris Hyerczyk has been running a day care from her McHenry home since June 2006. She strongly advocates teaching young children to be physically active and believes that children’s access to digital mobile devices is contributing to the growing childhood obesity rate.

The children she watches at her Bright Kidz Day Care won’t find a TV, let alone an iPad. Instead, there are plenty of books, playroom areas, LEGOS, and educational toys to keep them occupied throughout the day.

“Physical activity is so critical for young children, especially as they’re developing,” Hyerczyk said. “There are studies now that say exercise is good for the brain.”

Werber would agree that over-reliance on digital devices is “not in their best developmental interests.”

To Werber, the debate over toddlers’ use of digital devices isn’t all that different from last century’s issues with technology.

“It’s the same issue we had in the 1950s when television came around. A screen is a screen is a screen,” she said. “It’s about whether it has become a substitute for personal interaction.”

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