Toddlers, Tablets and the Right Amount of Screen Time

Toddler on a highchair reading a tablet pc; Shutterstock ID 242674822; PO: Brandon for Parents

By Tracey Dowdy

If you’re the parent of a toddler, you’ve no doubt wrestled with the “How much is too much?” question surrounding screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics has its recommendations, as does every mother on the playground, your own mother, the lady behind you at the checkout stand, and not least of all, your toddler.

Smartphones and tablets have become an integral part of our lives. A study by Pew Research Center found that at least 83% of all 18 to 49-year-olds in the US – the age bracket most likely to be parents of toddlers and elementary aged children – own smartphones.

Why is there so much controversy over the issue? Is allowing your toddler to match shapes on a tablet any less effective in facilitating cognitive development than playing with physical shapes? Will using tablets delay motor skills? Will it delay development of social skills? A lot of the conversation surrounding these questions is based on fear. Many parents question their choices and the hype around screen time plays on this fear. The fact is, there isn’t a lot of scientific research simply because the issue is relatively new. The iPad is only seven years old –researchers are still measuring the impact.

In an article for Psychology Today, doctors Tim J. Smith and Irati R. Saez de Urabain, state, “Touchscreens offer an intuitive interface which enable toddlers to gain intense contingent sensory stimulation during a peak period of neural development and at an age when the relatively immature motor and linguistic systems have previously limited cognitive stimulation.” In other words, your toddler can use their gross motor skills to touch and match onscreen images before they develop the fine motor skills necessary to perform more advanced kinesthetic activities. Also, the flashing lights, sounds, and immediate positive feedback children get from tablets is a great motivator to continue playing and learning.

The TABLET (Toddler Attentional Behaviours and Learning with Touchscreens) project at Birkbeck, University of London, is studying the long term effects of media use on children between 6 months and 3 years of age through their Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, also known as Babylab. The study includes onsite research in London and an online survey open to parents worldwide. If you would like to participate in the study, click here to be directed to the survey. It takes approximately 20 minutes to complete, is completely confidential, and because they understand what it’s like to parent toddlers, the questionnaire can be paused and completed in more than one sitting.

This is not to say you should disregard the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics or of the National Association for the Education of Young Children; nor should we equate passively watching Frozen for the umpteenth time with playing educational games like Fish School.

At the end of the day, it’s like almost every other element of parenting. It’s more art than science and most of us are making it up as we go along, just like our parents did. And look how great we turned out!

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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