Too Soon for Technology?: The latest on digital use by preschoolers

The low-down on digital content, what’s appropriate, at what age—and some props for print books.
Illustration by Francisco Caceres

Illustration by Francisco Caceres

More on digital use:

In Praise of Print

It’s been a long time since libraries were paper-only domains. Computers, from laptops to tablets, and digital content are featured as prominently as print volumes in many institutions. But even the most experienced librarians and educators may find themselves flummoxed by the recent profusion of digital resources intended for the youngest users: preschoolers. The number of websites, apps, and ebooks for children under five has grown exponentially, leading librarians, teachers, and parents to wrestle with new questions about which digital offerings are appropriate and when.

Even more confusing are the conflicting messages about these resources. Advocates for technological tools tout their capacity to teach young children about letters, numbers, and every informational topic under the sun. These kids are growing up in a digital world, the e-enthusiasts point out, so why wait to expose them to the electronic riches the rest of us enjoy? Others, however, urge caution. Research on the effects of digital media use is still spotty, they note, especially where very young children are concerned. And the excessive use of digital products can crowd out other experiences essential to young children’s development. Alarmists have issued dire warnings that the use of technology is “rewiring” young children’s brains, harming their ability to pay attention or to control their impulses.

So what’s a librarian to do?

The best place to begin thinking through preschoolers’ use of technology is to consider what young children need. Kids under age five need to handle real objects, learning for themselves how the natural world works. They must move their bodies, coordinating their movements and gaining physical confidence. They should engage in unstructured playtime, exercising their imaginations, managing their emotions, and solving problems in scenarios of their own creation. And, most of all, young children need to interact with other people, navigating relationships with their peers and receiving guidance and support from adults.

The limits of digital media

All of these needs are met most fully in the offline world. In fact, researchers have a term—“the video deficit”—to describe the poor potential for learning when very young children watch an onscreen presentation, even one featuring a person. For children under three years old, especially, the capacity to “transfer” knowledge from one context to another (to learn a new word from a video, say, and then use it in conversation) is quite constrained. Kids learn much more readily from a live human, likely because their conversational partner is able to respond directly to their gestures or utterances, and also because a live person presents a much richer array of cues than does a two-dimensional image.

There are other limitations of electronic media of which librarians should be aware. Many digital products aimed at young children are marketed as “educational,” but present no legitimate research to support that claim. A recent report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the New America Foundation found a “disturbing disconnect between children’s needs in early learning and literacy and the current bestselling apps.” Moreover, much of the electronic media used by children doesn’t even pretend to have an educational purpose, seeking only to entertain. This is especially true for use by children approaching school age, according to a study produced by the Cooney Center: it documented a drop from 78 to 27 percent in the proportion of digital media devoted to educational content used by children as they grow older. And even the benefits of genuinely educational products, like ebooks, may come with caveats: recent research suggests that the visual and auditory gimmicks and game-like elements included in many electronic titles can distract young readers from the book’s text.

That’s not to say that the digital alarmists are right, however. Every experience children have, from reading a book to holding a conversation, leaves an impression on their brains—so to claim that digital devices are rewiring kids’ neural circuits in some unique or insidious way is simply not true. For adults, the primary worry is not that electronic media itself will harm young minds. What should be a concern is the potential of media use to supplant other activities—relating to people, spending time outside, engaging in physical activity, playing in an unstructured environment—that are critical to kids’ development.

All that said, digital media can provide a useful vehicle for preschool children’s learning—if it’s thoughtfully chosen and managed. Librarians can play a key role here, and it’s called “media mentorship.” Educators are hungry for this kind of guidance: In a recent survey by the LEAD Commission, 82 percent of teachers reported that they had not received the training that would allow them to make the fullest use of technology in their classrooms. In another Cooney Center survey, 55 percent of parents said they would like more advice from experts on finding videos, games, and websites that will support their children’s learning.

What qualities characterize the kind of electronic media that should be recommended to young children and their parents and teachers? Organizations like the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media and the New America Foundation Early Learning Initiative have undertaken efforts to define such attributes, and have come up with some conclusions. Digital tools for preschoolers should be easy to use and readily comprehended. They should be playful and enjoyable, encouraging creativity and imaginativeness. They should make connections to children’s everyday experiences while exposing them to new information and perspectives. They ought to be accessible to kids of varying abilities and levels of maturity. And the experience of using them is ideally open-ended and interactive, not one-sided or passive.

To find digital resources that fulfill such rigorous criteria, librarians can acquaint themselves with—and share with teachers and parents—online clearinghouses that review and rate children’s media. Some of the best of these include Common Sense Media, Graphite, Children’s Technology Review, and Google Play for Education.

Beyond identifying and recommending specific ebooks or apps, librarians can also offer advice on how such tools should be used. For example, they can suggest that parents and teachers engage in digital media with young children, posing open-ended questions or asking kids to describe what’s happening in their own words. Research shows that the use of such “dialogic techniques” leads to more learning by children—yet parents or teachers who would naturally pause and make a comment or ask a question while reading a storybook may not think to do so when the medium is a video or an app.

Librarians can also counsel teachers and, especially, parents on setting appropriate limits on preschoolers’ use of technology. The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under age two get no screen time at all, and that older children be limited to two hours of screen time a day. In a recent AAP survey, however, 90 percent of parents said their two-and-under kids use some form of electronic media ; in another survey, researchers reported that 25 percent of children aged two to five spend three or more hours a day in front of a screen.

Digital tools for preschoolers are not mind-melting abominations, but neither are they educational miracle workers. They are one kind of resource among the many that libraries can offer to their young patrons, alongside reading buddies, storytime, crafts projects, and a comfortable corner stocked with books—the paper kind.

Paul-Murphy-Annie_ContribJournalist and author Annie Murphy Paul ( has written the upcoming book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart (Crown, 2016).

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Emily Lloyd

I'm late to comment, but want to highlight the sentence "Beyond identifying and recommending specific ebooks or apps, librarians can also offer advice on how such tools should be used." Absolutely and yes! When I recommend apps to parents of preschoolers/prereaders, I use the word "together" a lot, and talk about exploring apps together just as you'd explore a print book together. Remember, reading books together usually don't involve little ones moving their bodies, coordinating their movements, and gaining physical confidence, either--and yet no one questions whether books are okay for prereaders, and usually we don't even worry that prereaders are spending too much time with books to the detriment of time spent at other activities. Well-made children's apps, too, CAN engage kids in "unstructured playtime, exercising their imaginations, managing their emotions, and solving problems in scenarios of their own creation"--what matters is finding those apps and exploring them together, as you would books. Many of the top-selling apps are bad because they're made by folks who mainly make other things--prominent brands in movies or toys aren't necessarily going to know how (or even need to know how) to make strong apps for prereaders, which takes more than inserting well-known commercial characters. They're top-selling not because they're good, but because parents or children see the character or brand and love or trust that. But that's akin to only reading books with TV or movie characters in them: those books just usually aren't as good or developmentally-appropriate as books by people who mainly make books, not shows and toys. There are app makers that understand early childhood, early literacy, and how children learn, and that make delightful developmentally-appropriate apps. The first one that comes to mind is Toca Boca, which always (or almost always; I haven't checked all of their apps) includes thoughtful, specific tips for parents about how they can make the most out of each app--for example, to talk with their child about their own house routines while exploring Toca House together. For what it's worth, here are the slides from two presentations I've given to parents and caregivers of prereaders, "iPad Apps and Your Prereader: a Session for Parents and Caregivers" and "iPads and Early Literacy: 50 Fantastic Free iPad Apps for Prereaders. The first offers tips on what to look for in a good app and what to avoid, examples of age-inappropriate apps, and examples of several strong free ones with tips on how to explore them together. The latter puts forward 50 strong free ipad apps for prereaders, including screenshots, links, and tips on how to explore them together, with apps grouped by the 5 ECRR2 practices of talk, sing, read, write, and play. I think that, like this article, they will be useful to those who hope to become media mentors serving families with young children, but aren't sure where to start.

Posted : Jul 28, 2014 01:51

Alana Abbott

We have had some good success with my preschooler and learning apps (recognizing letters and numbers from her games and applying that information to puzzles and other physical-world activities, etc.) We only bought her more apps after we saw that she was able to apply the information from one media to another. But she also very clearly distinguishes between her read-to-me titles on devices (or even the books I read to her from my nook) and "real books" (her words).

Posted : Jul 09, 2014 06:30


I understand the concern about ebooks when they become games or interactive apps, rather than books, I do. But reading an ebook with kids is no different on an iPad or reader, if you're actually reading it. If the child will be reading on a device when they get older as well, then this is preparing them to read just as reading a print book does for children who will be print readers.

Posted : Jul 09, 2014 03:33


I doubt preschoolers are better off for having digital media. Still, since all ages are so immersed, perhaps it's best if they learn to use it in an active way that leads to learning new skills, rather than passive consumption or using it as a babysitter.

Posted : Jul 09, 2014 01:16



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