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Are smartphones and tablets that bad for Kids?

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

"I'm so thankful I had a childhood before technology took over?"

illustration of kids at the computer

Screen time is an inescapable reality of modern childhood. Tablet ownership has more than doubled in the past few years – and as many parents are finding, children are highly proficient at using them. The strength of children's engagement with the devices can sometimes appear cultish. But are these devices harmful to their development? Or do they encourage 'technological intelligence'? Do parents who choose to limit or deny access to tablets deprive their children of technological intelligence, or are they keeping them safe from an as yet unknown harm?

Wait Until Preschool

Just because toddlers like to push buttons and watch videos does not mean they are ready for a computer. Experts recommend waiting until your child is at least preschool age.  

Between birth and age three, our brains develop quickly and are particularly sensitive to the environment around us. In medical circles, this is called the critical period, because the changes that happen in the brain during these first tender years become the permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built.

“Children under two years of age learn best from real-world experiences and interactions, and each minute spent in front of a screen-based device is a minute when your child is not exploring the world and using their senses, which is extremely important in their development process,” says Dr. Carolyn Jaynes, a learning designer for Leapfrog Enterprises. “However, by age three, many children are active media users and can benefit from electronic media with educational content. This content often uses strategies such as repeating an idea, presenting images and sounds that capture attention, and using child rather than adult voices for the characters.”

Limit Screen Time

The key message is moderation. Parents might want to consider setting a time limit on tablet use – although they should be mindful not to interrupt their child at the point of the app's maximum benefit.

And if parents continue to interact with their children while they’re using those screens, they could potentially negate any detrimental effects there may be. Solid, conclusive research is still in its infancy.

Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says of digital media, ‘If used appropriately, it’s wonderful. We don’t want to demonize media, because it’s going to be a part of everybody’s lives increasingly, and we have to teach children how to make good choices around it, how to limit it and how to make sure it’s not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there.’

Content Matters

What children watch and play matters. Parents should distinguish between educational and entertainment-based content. Another good idea is to look for an age range listed on the app, keeping in mind what your child can handle. There are many apps that teach basic math and spelling, time, money and fractions, geography, the U.S. Constitution, Shakespeare, as well as tools for learning art and music. Games and activities that engage children in thinking skills like memory games, puzzles, and spatial reasoning activities are also a good idea.

Parental Guidance & Interaction Suggested

Experts recommend parents be very involved in their child’s experience with electronic devices, especially at a young age. The goal is balanced exposure. Keep media screens in family areas so that a child’s media usage can be monitored, and use tablets as tool for information gathering and research.

You can help your child get more out of a smartphone or tablet by sharing in the experience. When parents and children are watching or playing together, kids are internalizing important social skills. Engage with your child as he tries out a new app, asking questions about the game and pointing out different aspects of the content.

“The real world is a very important place for children to develop cognitive, social and language skills,” says Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. Clark-Pearson suggests allowing your child to take photos of bugs with your iPhone, then going online together to read more about the insects in the images they capture.

This interaction is an often overlooked component in most parenting strategies. In the 1980s, researchers at the Children’s Television Network discovered that kids learned more from Sesame Street when they watched the show alongside their parents. They called it “coviewing,”and when applied to TV-watching, can help increase your child’s comprehension skills. 

Tablets & Smartphones: An Additional Learning Layer

For school-age children, a smartphone or tablet can give them an additional learning layer, beyond the traditional classroom or book, providing students with multiple opportunities to access content and engage with curriculum, Jeannie Galindo says, supervisor of instructional technology for the Manatee County School District in Florida. “They connect students to the world beyond the four walls of their brick and mortar buildings and give them access to real world experts solving real world problems in real time. Technology makes their learning relevant.” Lastly, don't underestimate your child's intelligence; they instinctively understand its limits too. Witness this conversation between parent and a child on the bus the other day:

"So you can basically do whatever you want on an iPad?"

"Ye-es," he says, hesitating.

Then, in a consoling voice, he adds: "But you can't make it come alive. You can't make the iPad come alive."

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