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Apps and little kids: should we worry?

Two children focused on an iPad. Is it good for them?
Two children focused on an iPad. Is it good for them?
dickdotcom/Flickr/Creative Commons

Maybe it’s the appeal of swiping or the challenge of Angry Birds, but any parent with a smartphone or tablet can attest to this: the devices are irresistible to children.

But how much smartphone and tablet use is too much for young minds? And do games which are marketed as "educational" live up to their label?

It’ll be some time before we have definitive answers, but a couple of recent articles dig into those questions — and how we as parents feel about them.

The Touch Screen Generation found an interesting contrast: Programmers, designers, and writers who create iPad games for children impose strict rules for screen time for their own kids. They own up to pangs of guilt when they park their child in front of an electronic device — just like the rest of us. Author Hanna Rosin shared this annecdote:

"At one point I sat with one of the biggest developers of e-book apps for kids, and his family. The toddler was starting to fuss in her high chair, so the mom did what many of us have done at that moment — stuck an iPad in front of her and played a short movie so everyone else could enjoy their lunch. When she saw me watching, she gave me the universal tense look of mothers who feel they are being judged. 'At home,' she assured me, 'I only let her watch movies in Spanish.'"

She cited studies on television use that show that it can be stimulating and educational — and yet we still worry.

blog item in the New York Times examined games and apps labeled "educational". Many present children with problems to solve and provide a reward. The child successfully traces a letter, for instance, and a happy sound or graphic plays which serves as positive reinforcement. Blog author KC Dell'Antonia said you don't need an app to use smartphones and tablets as discovery tools:
"The iPad runs apps that allow children to interact with game characters — but it also runs FaceTime and Skype, which allow children to interact with grandparents, cousins and friends. It allows illustrated words to epitomize their definitions, shaking and spinning — but it also allows even a very young child to scavenger-hunt the alphabet through the grocery store or airport, collecting pictures of each letter in order. There are immersive apps, that draw a child into that 'zombielike state,' and there are apps that help children look up, into their own world."

And what about the fear that they will become attached to the devices? Rosin made her own 4-year old son the subject of an experiment, giving him unlimited use of an iPad. Her findings: "After about 10 days, the iPad fell out of his rotation, just like every other toy does. He dropped it under the bed and never looked for it. It was completely forgotten for about six weeks. Now he picks it up every once in a while, but not all that often."
What's your take? Should children be allowed to play with their parents' smartphones and tablets? And what could be some effective methods for curbing screen time at home?