RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Journalist Hanna Rosin has three kids. And when her youngest was still a toddler, the iPad came out. He was mesmerized and mastered the touch screen with uncanny speed. As Rosin writes, quote, "It was eerie to see a child still in diapers so competent and intent, as if he were forecasting his own adulthood." Which led her to wonder, what could this technology be doing to young children's brains?
She set out to explore that question in her latest article for The Atlantic. It's called "The Touch-Screen Generation." Hanna Rosin is with us in the studio to talk about her discovery.
HANNA ROSIN: Hi.
MARTIN: So outline the dilemma for us. I mean, you want to give your kids the cutting-edge technology, but you don't want their brains to turn to mush.
ROSIN: Exactly, and brains turn to mush is exactly how many parents put it. I mean, any parent listening has witnessed that face, you know, that blank face that children have when they're staring at the screen. And it just freaks us out. It's not part of our vision of childhood.
MARTIN: So, I'm a new parent and this whole concept of screen time, I'd never even heard that expression.
MARTIN: And all of a sudden I'm paranoid. What is too much?
ROSIN: Well, I'm trying to take a little bit of the neurosis out of this...
ROSIN: ...with my story by talking about some of the latest research that exists out there, about ways of interacting with technology that are pretty great.
I mean, we can think about this in our own lives. There are ways that we interact with technology that are cool and teach us new things. And there are other ways that are really entertaining, you know, that's a zone too - not everything we watch on TV or listen to is explicitly educational. And then there is, you know, we're just totally wasting time, spending hours playing games on our cell phones.
So I think we have a pretty good calibration for ourselves. And I think maybe we should bring some of that sanity to our children, and not freak out just because they're staring at a screen.
MARTIN: So what did you find out? Are there any benefits to screen time?
ROSIN: Yeah. For one thing, this brain-turned-to-mush sentence that many parents say, is based on a very outdated notion of what your brain is doing when you're watching TV. It's really, really not true. There's been many, many studies done since the '70s by researchers, showing that children's brains are very, very active when they are watching television.
If your brain was turning to mush, you'd be like a zombie staring at the screen. That doesn't happen at all. You're trying to figure things out and taking meaning from the television.
MARTIN: What about the content of what young kids, toddlers even, are actually consuming on these screens? I mean, there's this whole trend, right, like Baby Einstein or Teletubbies - kid-centric programming. What's the difference between consuming that and having the TV news on in the background?
ROSIN: Important question, there is a concept called video deficit in the research. And the video deficit is this idea that children who are toddlers - you know, three, two, something like that - they actually have a hard time trusting or understanding information that they pick up on the television. They just don't really understand the difference between a person and a person on TV. They think they can go into the television.
They just don't quite understand the difference. And so, more recently, researchers have tried to see if they could erase the video deficit, if they could make technology accessible to very young children. Now, how do they do that? Anybody who's maybe watched "Dora, the Explorer" or "Blue's Clues" is familiar with this concept of the pause. In other words, Blue asks a question and then pauses. And the child answers the question, says: It's over there, it's on the corner. I mean, my kids have done it 100 times.
This is like a brilliant innovation in television, and it kind of clued the researchers off to this idea that if you made the TV more interactive, kids could trust it more and understand more of what was going on.
So some new researchers looking at apps essentially ran a lot of old studies but they made them interactive. They made the person on a two-way screen interact with the kids, talk to the kids, answer their questions. And that basically erased the video deficit.
MARTIN: And that's a good thing.
ROSIN: That's a good thing, yes.
ROSIN: That's a good thing because right now we're trapped in this weird zone where we give our phones to the kids. It's called the pass-back effect. We passed the phone to the kid, but we don't feel good about it. We feel annoyed about it. The whole attitude we transmit to the children is eww. Like, I'm giving you toxic poison now and I'm going to let you muck about in it for, you know, 20 minutes until I can't stand it anymore. And then I'm going to take it away from you.
ROSIN: That's not a good place to land...
MARTIN: So you're saying free yourself from that guilt.
ROSIN: Free yourself from this neurosis and guilt. Technology is with us. Just accept it. The phones are with us. The iPads are with us. Some of them are amazing - they're super cool.
MARTIN: So, you also did an interesting experiment with one of your own kids.
MARTIN: You just handed him an iPad.
ROSIN: Yes. The most radical person I came across in my research did this with his own seven-year-old child. His philosophy is that we are just technophobes and we should treat technology like anything else. We should treat it like books and games, just throw it in there in the toy basket like everything else and, you know, stop freaking out.
So I tried this experiment on my then - he was four when I tried this experiment. And I just put the iPad in the toy basket with everything else. I just did not put any limits on it. I was like sure, play that, play Legos - I don't care, do whatever you want. I just, you know, cut out the disdain.
You want to know what I discovered?
MARTIN: What did you discover?
ROSIN: So what I discovered was for the first week and a half, it couldn't have been more annoying. Like, we'd be getting ready for school and he would be like, give me the iPad, give me the iPad.
ROSIN: And, you know, it would be like eight in the morning, I'm trying to get all three kids ready for school, he just wants to play his games. And then, the iPad suddenly - he dropped it on the floor. It fell out of rotation like any other game. I mean, honestly...
ROSIN: ...he did not interact with it all that differently than he did with his toy cars. He goes through an intense obsession; lets it go, and then sort of picks it up here and there again.
MARTIN: Have you made your peace with this now?
ROSIN: Yes, I've totally made my peace with it. My only point is not that I'm an awesome parent. It's just that...
ROSIN: ...I started to think a little more creatively about what they could get out of it, instead of doing my instinctive, like eww, get that out of your hands.
MARTIN: Hanna Rosin, she writes for The Atlantic. She joined us in our studio in Washington.
Hanna, thanks so much.
ROSIN: Sure. That was fun.
MARTIN: So we want to know, if you're a parent, do you let your child use your smartphone or tablet device? Let us know. We're at Facebook.com/nprweekend. I'm at Twitter @rachelnpr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.