Ask most older adults how to operate a smartphone or tablet and they’ll likely stumble finding the most effective way it works. Hand that device to a toddler and watch the many technological capabilities come to life with ease. Whether right or wrong, kids are being exposed to technology at an earlier age and it’s permeating their lives.
Unlike their older relatives, children are digital natives growing up surrounded by technology at home, school and on the go. This includes tablets, cellphones, laptops, smart TVs, video games and other digital devices. Even young, technically adept parents struggle to keep up with their kids' media savvy.
Digital literacy is a critical skill that should be developed gradually. When used mindfully, technology can be beneficial and even educational for children. However, technology also has its downside and risks.
Excessive media exposure has been associated with poor social-emotional, cognitive and language development, as well as sleep problems and obesity. So, how should we introduce our children to screen time and mobile devices? The key is to be mindful of the quantity and quality of screen time your children have.
Interactive vs. non-interactive media
Aim to primarily expose your children to interactive media, and make a conscious effort to limit the amount of time your child spends absorbing non-interactive media content. Interactive media, such as a phonics or spelling game, gives children the opportunity for creative, hands-on engagement and active participation. Non-interactive media consists of passive exposure to media. Because you don’t want your child zoning out to endless YouTube, it’s best to steer them toward interactive content.
Make it age appropriate
Children under 2 are like sponges soaking up information from experiences in their environment. Their rapidly developing brains learn best from hands-on exploration and social interactions. Therefore, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advises against any screen time for children under 18 months. Ideally, this means no cartoons on TV, music videos on YouTube or games on your iPhone.
Realistically, there are some exceptions to this rule. If abuelo or other family live far away, video calls allow interactions that are beneficial for social development. Parents traveling for work can use FaceTime to play remotely with their child or read a bedtime story.
However, beware of apps and games marketed toward babies. They often make false claims that lack scientific evidence.
Children 18 months to 3 years old should only have shared media usage with an adult, rather than unsupervised solo time with the tablet or smartphone. Kids 2 and older should have a maximum of one hour of screen time daily across settings, including television.
Aim for quality content
Not all screen time is bad. Some apps, videos and games can be educational when used in moderation. A fantastic resource for parents is commonsensemedia.org, which has age-appropriate media recommendations and a searchable database of movies, books, television, games, apps and websites. Some digital games are even used in schools due to research showing positive effects on kids’ learning. Games and apps by ABCMouse, Sesame Street and PBS can help preschoolers maintain what they learned at school over the summer break.
Get savvy with device settings
Although it’s preferable to share digital experiences with your children, it’s not always possible to directly monitor them. Sometimes you need to get through chores without major meltdowns and will hand a tablet to your 4-year-old for peace. This is where parental control settings — available on most devices — come in handy.
Parents can restrict content, downloads and purchases. Some kid-specific devices intentionally lack internet access. Device settings or parent monitoring apps also enable parents to restrict time on tablets for specific functions. For example, you could allow unlimited reading and educational apps, while limiting video watching and gaming to 30 minutes daily.
Practice what you preach
Young children learn from watching their parents, so try to model using mobile devices in moderation. Let’s face it, as parents we often find it difficult to put down our smartphones and unplug. Dedicate at least a few minutes a day for tech-free time to play with your children. You'll find it easier to be present in the moment and enjoy time together. Consider using that tech-free time for physical activity with your child, which is important for health and helps kids focus their attention when necessary.
Introduce your young children gradually and purposefully to mobile devices. Think twice about handing an iPhone with Snapchat to your 4-year-old or letting your 2-year-old stream movies for hours on end. Instead, find educational interactive apps and games to enjoy together for a few minutes at a time. Ultimately, quality tech-free time with you is optimal for your young child's development.
By Bridget Davidson, Ph.D., postdoctoral associate, and Jason Jent, Ph.D., psychologist, at the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.