Since our own parents and grandparents were kids, blocks, train sets, and dolls have been children‘s favorite holiday gifts—but a major shift is occurring. This holiday season, sales of “traditional” toys are at some of the lowest levels in recent history. Sales of electronic items, however—tablets, laptops, smart phones, and TVs—are up, suggesting that children have more access and exposure to technology than ever before.

Toy makers and marketers are certainly interested in this trend, but what does society’s growing emphasis on technology mean for the development of children under age 3? “Active parenting always has to do with balance and creating many different opportunities for many different experiences. . . . So if you drop a new tool or device into that mix, it’s good to think about how it will support or impede your child’s development,” explains Shelly Pasnik, director of EDC’s Center for Children and Technology, in a recent interview.

By the age of three, a child’s brain has grown to 90 percent of its full size and has made critical connections that determine how the child learns, forms memories, and adapts to new situations. During this time, children need to develop positive, strong relationships with adults; they need to develop muscles to support growing bodies and movement; they need to build language and social skills through human interaction; and they need to develop their capacity to be creative and imaginative.

Considering these developmental needs in the context of a technology-driven world is especially relevant for those caring for and working with young children. During the early years, the American Academy of Pediatrics, one of the National Center’s technical partners, advises that “young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”

Screens—including but not limited to TVs, computers, and mobile devices—“provide a very limited sensory environment” where textures and smells cannot be explored, says Psychology Today. Also, the two-dimensionality of screens can affect a young child’s developing perception of depth and distance. Since they reduce the rate of blinking, screens can lead to dry eyes, which may damage young eyes. For the parents and caretakers who increasingly occupy young children with mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, so they can accomplish errands in peace, these points may be particularly relevant.

Researchers warn that even “educational” and “interactive” apps, which are often used on mobile devices, affect child development differently than traditional educational toys do. For instance, when children build with blocks, they decide what to build, how to build it, and when their creation is completed. Apps, on the other hand, often dictate what task should be carried out, how it should be done, and when it is finished. Because of the recent popularity of apps designed for young children, any developmental impact on children has yet to be determined.

Realistically, we must recognize that our society’s emphasis on technology can make children’s exposure to it unavoidable. If young children are to interact with technology, a joint position statement by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning recommends that young children’s use should be limited to activities that strengthen relationships with adults, such as participating in video conversations with family, and viewing pictures and e-books (though not in dim light, or before bedtime) with a parent or caretaker.

While each child’s experience with technology and the impact it ultimately has on his or her life will be unique, keep in mind that there is no substitute for human interaction with loving parents and caretakers and for opportunities for children to explore their physical environment.

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For more information on screen-time guidelines, please see:
Common Sense Media Research Study: Zero to Eight

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