Baby with computer

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) is taking a sensible lead for the 21st century and updating its policy on technology and screen time from birth to age 3. The proactive association recognizes that technology and interactive media have great potential as enhanced learning tools to support the development of young children. They recognize that babies are already connected and exploring new digital habits. This wise and bold move is in stark contrast to last century's American Academy of Pediatrics' outdated official policy. Now brace yourself. You'll not believe who else objects to NAEYC's timely and prudent 21st-century stance.

The New Proposal and Why It Is Needed

This NAEYC draft proposal is scheduled for release in the fall of 2011:

It is the position of NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center that technology and interactive media are learning tools that, when used in intentional and developmentally appropriate ways and in conjunction with other traditional tools and materials, can support the development and learning of young children.

At first glance, this proposal seems to be in complete contrast to the 1999 official policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics. I believe the AAP policy has often been misinterpreted and leaves many parents and policy makers confused. Few readers get beyond the first line of Recommendation 3:

"Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years."

Too often I see the AAP policy being misapplied to include all screen media, including baby and toddler reading products. For example, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood uses the AAP policy to support its stance limiting all screen technology before age 2. They substitute the words "screen technology" for "television" in their interpretation of the AAP statement, as if iPads, DVDs, smart phones, phone apps, and anything on the computer screen are exactly the same as really bad television programing and therefore harmful for babies and toddlers. They say there is no research that shows technology is good. I say, there is no research that proves all technology is bad. Is it time for a new AAP policy review to clear up this mess?

One nice feature of the NAEYC draft proposal is that it covers a wide range of digital media and makes it clear that children from babyhood to age 8 need to have access to technology with appropriate content both at school and at home. The policy advocates incorporating screens into early childhood life–and rightly so:

As technology increasingly finds its way into mainstream culture, the types and uses of technology in early childhood programs have also expanded dramatically to include computers, tablets, e-books, mobile devices, handheld gaming devices, digital cameras and video camcorders, electronic toys, multimedia players for music and videos, digital audio recorders, interactive whiteboards, software applications, the Internet, streaming media, and more. These technologies are increasingly expanding the tools and materials to which young children have access both in their homes and in their classrooms, affecting the ways in which young children interact with the world and with others.

From NAEYC Draft Proposal


Who Is Against 21st-Century Technology?

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is actively campaigning against the NAEYC policy. Conjoining this effort with their ongoing Federal Trade Commission complaint (i.e., lawsuit) against a company that has introduced millions of American parents to the benefits of baby and toddler reading, CCFC is aggressively campaigning and exhorting parents to send a message to NAEYC. "Share your concerns about children and technology," they implore, urging parents to try to get NAEYC to change the pro-technology position. Talk about deceptive advertising–the CCFC call to action went out as "The Mind/Body Problem: Why We Should All Be Advocating for Limits on Children's Screen Time." Yes, according to CCFC it's a "Mind/Body Problem," though they post no "Mind/Body" research.

I've met scores, maybe hundreds, of parents who have used the product involved in the CCFC lawsuit appropriately with their babies and toddlers. (Authors of successful books about baby and toddler reading get to meet a lot of parents!) I've never met one parent who didn't like the product, though some have described certain limitations. They all felt that it helped their child learn to read as a toddler, and championed its benefits.

In a post asking parents to comment on the FTC complaint against the baby/toddler reading product, CCFC makes misleading comments such as this one:

"Even though babies and toddlers may recognize written words, their brains aren't developed enough to actually learn to read."

This statement is patently false. It's based on the assumption that babies and toddlers learn to read through formal reading instruction. They can't. But the statement doesn't take into account that babies and toddlers can learn to read fairly easily through informal instruction.

Babies and toddlers can read–not just words but they can learn to read easy, happy, toddler-appropriate books at first grade levels and beyond. They can enter kindergarten already reading, which would fix the problem we have in America where four out of ten 8-year-olds can't read proficiently. It's true that "even though babies and toddlers may recognize written words, their brains aren't developed enough to actually learn to read through formal instruction." However, babies and toddlers can and do learn to read through right-brain capacities during the critical brain-development period from birth to age 3, and they seem to pick it up easily with minimal effort from their first reading teacher, the parent.

At age 2 and age 3 toddlers can intuit phonics and decode, again using right-brain capacities. No one has conducted research on 2-year-old readers, and I can't explain exactly how babies and toddlers intuit phonics and read. I think during this period when the right brain has special pattern-recognition, word-learning, and language-building capacities, toddlers see patterns such as one pig, two pigs, a big pig with a wig–and such–and they pick up phonics much like they pick up languages. (The 6-year-old brain could not learn phonics this way because 6-year-olds likely have lost special pattern recognition capacities, just as they lose capacities for picking up multiple languages without having an accent.)

I don't understand and can't explain why scientists haven't done research on these 2-year-old readers, yet there are thousands of toddlers, maybe millions, who do read and decode English–everyday normal happy toddlers–not exceptions, not geniuses. Their parents taught them by reading aloud and playing word games, some spending only five minutes a day. There is no research to prove that babies and toddlers can read, but only because the research hasn't been done. The contrarian research I have seen on this topic isn't applicable, because it fails to address 2- and 3-year-olds who learned to read informally. The contrarian researchers don't know that babies and toddlers can read, because they have conducted their research hypothesizing that babies learn to read just like 6-year-olds. They are wrong.

Is the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

On this particular issue, I believe the CCFC is a wolf. Is this anti-baby-reading campaign more about winning a lawsuit than about spreading the truth? The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said the trouble with academics is "that they care more about whether their ideas are important than whether they are true." While CCFC has done fine work countering the harmful effects of marketing in other areas, their anti-baby/toddler reading campaign seems to be deck stacking and sensationalized hyperbole as they attempt to win another lawsuit rather than to promote young children's welfare. They are off track on this one. I believe the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is literally throwing baby and toddler readers out with the bathwater; it's harmful for children and this particular campaign doesn't spread the truth.

Beware of the wolf in sheep's clothing that wants to keep babies in the last century and promote another century of reading failures in America. Don't listen to anyone who says technology is all bad. Don't blind your 1- and 2-year-old to 21st-century technology or wreak havoc on his or her 21st-century brain, which craves the benefits of technology and wants to imitate everything you do. Your child deserves to live in this century, not the last one.

In my next post I'll show you how technology-savvy babies and toddlers are learning to read.

(Dr. Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write--from Baby to Age 7. Available on Follow Dr. Gentry on Facebook and on Twitter.)

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