Joshua Kim, 22 months old, plays with his iPad at University Village as his mother watches over him. Photo credit: Hayat Norimine.

On a recent summer day, Jennifer Kim sat with her two kids at University Village in Seattle’s University District. One child played with her iPhone, while the other played with his iPad. They were 3 years and 22 months old, respectively.

We’ve all had that observation of a toddler able to navigate an iPad or iPhone with more dexterity and speed than their parent. More and more children are being seen at a younger age interacting with handheld devices. Today, families struggle with the decision — how much exposure to technology is too much?

Some families choose to allow minimal technology access to their children, and others, like Kim, have children who are iPad experts by the age of 3. Kim agrees with both perspectives: while interactive technology can be educational, she said, it may also be beneficial for kids to learn to live without it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under the age of 2 not to have any screen time. Sarah Roseberry Lytle, director of translation, outreach and education at the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, said research has shown that children under 2 don’t seem to be learning much from screen media. And time spent in front of a screen is time that could have been spent on more beneficial practices, like reading or socializing.

When time is spent with technology, she said, it helps when an adult is making sure it’s structured and children understand the meaning behind that time.

“If you’re looking for any sort of learning outcome, research shows that having an adult, having someone there to do that sort of scaffolding … will improve child outcomes,” Roseberry Lytle said.

As for children older than the age of 2, Roseberry Lytle said families should approach media like a diet. Include some time spent with media, but disburse it with other elements of education like physical books, toys and social interactions with other kids. “Everything in moderation.”

“It really depends on the outcome you’re trying to get out of that experience,” Roseberry Lytle said about families allowing their children to use technology. For Kim, a mother of two boys less than two years apart, technology didn’t just serve educational purposes. If she needed one of her boys to stay occupied while she tended to the other, the iPad would hold their attention. She has two iPads and one iPhone. Her first-born, Jonah, started playing with her iPhone a month after she got it. At the time, he was just under 2 years old. But she says she immediately regretted giving him that access.

“He doesn’t really know the limitations,” Kim said about her first son, Jonah, spending all his time on the iPhone. “He was so young. There were no guidelines.”

It would be less tempting, she said, for her to resort to using technology to occupy her kids if circumstances had been different — more time on her hands, more help, or if her two boys had a wider age gap.

Kim said there were benefits. Jonah grew up learning his basics, like his ABCs and color names, through iPhone apps. But that comes with being unsatisfied whenever there are alternatives to interactive technology.

“At the same time, that’s all they want,” she said.

Tonia Allen Gould, a children’s author, chose to publish her book “Samuel T. Moore of Corte Magore” through an iPad app rather than a physical book. The app allowed her to include a narrative, music score and moving animation. While she said she grew up with physical books and values them, she wanted children to be able to interact with her story.

“I think that books are a great way to get kids thinking early and speaking early,” Gould said. “But with an app I see a whole different level of engagement that you don’t really see with a conventional book.”

Gould said that while there are challenges in tackling this new kind of platform, publishing companies will continue to take advantage of the potential of innovative technology. She said she’s optimistic about technology’s positive influence on early learning.

“What you’re seeing is kids that have an incredible technology knack these days,” she said. “There are some drawbacks, but I think it’s probably the way of the future.”

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