Is your two year old asking you for your smartphone or tablet to watch a video or play a game?

Growing up in a house full of devices it’s a challenge keeping children away from using these devices from a very young age. Young children are so attracted to technology that they become skilled users of smartphones and tablets long before they learn how to read and write. It’s also not unusual for parents to use smartphones and tablets to occupy their children especially when out and about.

According to a report published by Ofcom UK in 2012, 37% of children 3-4 years old go online to look at a website, watch TV or play games and spend 15.5 watching TV each week.

This seems to be an issue that concerns not only parents but also scientists who are trying to identify if introducing new technologies to young children can support their development or have a negative impact on their learning process.

Is a tablet or smartphone bad for your child?

The truth is that since this is the first generation of children growing up with smartphones and tablets, scientists do not have enough data to advise us on the effects that this type of technology in general has on our children’s cognitive and social development.

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What do researchers say so far?

Researcher Jenny Radesky from Boston University published a study that associates excessive media use with poor self-regulation mechanisms in young children and suggests that replacing physical activities and human interaction with the use of mobile devices can be potentially harmful.

An interesting experiment conducted by researchers at the Center for Toddler Development at Barnard College, showed that children between 18 to 36 months old, when given an iPad to play with, were so absorbed, that they did not respond to their names. Later on, children started playing without devices and they exhibited more social and creative behaviour.

Research shows that children 2 years old and younger learn better from using their senses to explore the world around them and interact with other children and adults. Through hands-on activities children can develop sensorimotor and emotional skills. Social play also allows children to use their imagination and problem solving skills.

But is technology all bad, or can children benefit from the use of mobile devices?

Although it’s known that babies and toddlers under two tend to learn more through interactive play and engagement with different materials that support their physical and social development, there is early research that suggests that interactive media such as e-books or other applications can help children develop their vocabulary and improve their reading skills but only if they are closer to the school age.

According to Irina Verenikina  researcher at the University of Wollongong, the use of mobile devices and in particular online games should support imaginative play instead of trying to use them as a way to keep children busy.

She also suggests that choosing the right application that should be both engaging and open ended will encourage children to use their imagination and will have an impact on their learning experience.


Since parents can’t avoid using mobile devices what’s the best way to make the most of it?

Keep devices on the floor

Dr Verenikina’s research showed that it’s best to put these devices on the floor because children tend to crawl and move more compared to when they are seated. She also suggests that it’s important to choose an app that engages their imagination and captures their interest, but also find an app that is suitable for their age and needs.

Include new technologies but always try to create a balanced schedule

Dr Rosie Flewitt, an early years education specialist from the Open University advises parents to expose their children to a wide range of activities including new technologies as they are now part of our lives,  but always keep in mind that overuse can have an impact on their behaviour.

Make it a shared experience

Experts recommend that parents should be involved in their child’s use of mobile devices, especially at a young age. You can help your child get more out of a smartphone or tablet by sharing the experience.

The best way to include new technologies in your child’s life is by making it an activity for both of you. Become actively involved and monitor what they are doing online. This will also set the standards for the future. By supervising and interacting with them, children will gain the positive aspects of human interaction as well as these of technologies.

Be a role model for your child

Try to spend time with your children without any devices and communicate with them. By giving them your undivided attention you will help them establish empathy and develop self regulatory mechanisms while creating long lasting memories. Finally avoid having meals in front of the TV and try to minimise the use of mobile devices in front of your child.

Set limits as to how much time children should spend online

In terms of how much time should a child spend online, it can be anything from a few seconds or minutes for babies to 15-30 minutes for toddlers. Always try to be on the lookout for signs that they are tired, sleepy or have lost interest and move on to another activity. Take regular breaks and make sure that your child understands why there is a time limit. Try to avoid screen time before bedtime as it might interfere with their sleeping habits.

If you are looking for something to do with your child, you are always welcome to visit our centre and spend time in our community spaces. You can also visit our family support page and see the activities that are available for your child and you each term.

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