Strategies for Introducing Toddlers to Technology
Go to the children's section and any library or bookstore and you'll find dozens of books aimed at helping prepare a child for their first experience doing something, whether it's going to the dentist or visiting the zoo.
But there are no books for the first time a child goes online or uses a tablet to watch a video or play an age-appropriate game, notes Nicole Dreiske, executive director of the International Children's Media Center.
"There’s not one book on preparing children for the first time they use a digital device that will be the most powerful influence in their lives," she said. "This 'first time' experience is particularly precious because it leaves a deep impression on the child and 21st century parents need to make the most of those first experiences with technology."
We reached out to child-rearing experts asking if it toddlers should be exposed to tech. We asked for the pros and cons, and, more importantly, best-practice strategies for parents who want to teach their children to use technology responsibly, and as an educational tool.
What's a Parent To Do?
Part of the problem is that the research is inconclusive at best and, usually, contradictory. Most parents have been conditioned to believe the Internet is a dangerous place for kids, so what parent in their right mind would let their toddler use a tablet?
There are plenty of studies that support that world view, but there are also plenty of studies showing kids who start using tech at a younger age are better prepared once they reach school, where more and more learning is being done on Internet-connected devices.
"We all know the regular drill: limit screen time and monitor what our kids watch and play. But are those really our best and only tools for toddlers?" Dreiske said. "Instead, let’s build on strengths we already have to help our kids develop healthy screen habits."
Bonding Or Babysitting?
It's important for parents to ask themselves tough questions and give honest answers about why they want to introduce their kids to digital media.
The current generation of parents spends more time with their kids than any previous generation of parents, so you're forgiving if you are looking for another trick for the bag of keeping them occupied when you're trying to get things done.
And while tablets and smartphones do a good job of solving the problem short time, there are consequences that you need to think about and discuss before you use tech as a parenting tool.
Setting a Precedent
"If you are doing something with tech with your under-5 child that is interactive, such as watching a cartoon together or playing an age appropriate game together, then in these types of instances tech can be fun and educational and a way to bond together, for short, set amounts of time," said Heidi McBain, a family therapist in Texas.
"However, if you are using tech as a 'virtual babysitter' while you are talking on the phone or at a restaurant," she said, "then you are setting up this precedent with your child that every time you are on the phone or at a restaurant they are expecting to be entertained by technology."
While much of the research on technology use by children is designed to measure the detrimental effects of screen time, there are some positives worth noting.
A study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found children 4- to 7-years-old improved 27 percent on a vocabulary test after using an educational app.
A similar study using a different educational app had a similar result, with 3-year-olds posting 17 percent gains, on average.
Times are changing — and changing, and changing, and changing.... the point is technology adapts and evolves faster than researchers can design studies to track long-term and short-term effects, as well as the pros and cons of screen time.
And keep in mind, the iPad is still only eight years old, meaning the first generation of kids to have screens everywhere are still in their first few years of school.
New Testing Results
These new generation of tests like that have forced a rethinking of the notion that "all tech is bad tech" for toddlers.
Most notably, the American Academy of Pediatrics did an about face on its guidelines in 2015: "In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete,” the AAP’s media committee said in a statement.
AAP now recommends 1-2 hours of screen time per day for kids between the ages of 2 and 5. Before that, the group had urged no screen time for children under two — including television. The updated guidelines lift that ban, but also urge parents to put limits on the time spent on screens, as well as establishing no-tech zones to put an emphasis on traditional play time.
It Doesn’t Have To Be An Either/Or Proposition
Shandy Cole, executive director of Fountainhead Montessori School in Dublin, Calif., concedes that most of the research has focused on the cons, but there are reasons why parents might want to consider introducing screen time to younger children.
Her own daughter, who is classified as gifted and needed more advanced activities, was using the family PC by the time she was 3.
"I think it is necessary to put some context around this question," Cole said. "In other words, in addition to the experience with my own daughter, it's not an either/or, good/bad, etc. scenario — just as using a computer to provide short-term distraction is not necessarily detrimental. Parents need to understand that there is a balancing act as to how advantageous/disadvantageous toddler tech use can be."
Research Apps Before Downloading
When the tantrum starts or the child is clearly bored with the apps they have been using, a parent's first instinct may be to download the first app that pops up when they do a search.
But Cole recommends spending some time getting to know the app before unleashing it on your kid. Better yet, make screen time and learning new games on the tablet something you do together.
"With all of this in mind, for parents who decide to allow their toddler to engage in screen time," she said, "the easiest and most practical strategies to follow and implement would be to focus on apps designed for children in this age range, and hands-on, and present, supervision, so the adult can explain what is happening on the screen or at least talk about it with the child."
Don't Separate Screen Time From Family Time
Most parents probably know this temptation: Mom and Dad want to catch up on "Westworld" on the TV in the den, so they set up a few episodes of "Pinky Dinky Doo" for their 3-year-old on the iPad. Everyone is in the same room, but it’s a classic case of screen time trumping family time.
Dreiske of the International Children's Media Center says parents will have to wait to see "Westworld" until after bedtime if they want their kids — and themselves — getting the most out of their screen time.
"Parents already have the tools to transform screen time," she said. "The key is to stop segregating screen time from family time, and connect the stories we read in books, to the stories children see on screens."
"Before starting screen time, introduce the child to the different kinds of screens she’ll see and use. Count them. It’s fun!" she said. "Then, 'prime' the child for using digital devices. For toddlers, I use a book-based approach that helps children make a first-time connection between the stories in books and the stories on screens."
Limiting Screen Time May Not Work
If parents do adopt a strategy, it usually revolves around setting strict limits on how much time kids spend online. Stop us if this sounds familiar: "After dinner, you can have 20 minutes on the tablet..." And then the parent uses Alexa to set a strict 20-minute timer.
It seems like a sound strategy — so sound that the American Academy of Pediatrics set guidelines of one to two hours of screen time a day for kids ages 2 to 5. But a new study from Oxford University suggests those guidelines may not work. The review of data from approximately 20,000 telephone interviews with parents suggest that limiting children’s digital device use is not necessarily beneficial for wellbeing.
"If anything, our findings suggest the broader family context, how parents set rules about digital screen time, and if they’re actively engaged in exploring the digital world together, are more important than the raw screen time," lead study author Dr. Andrew Pryzbylski said.
The study's authors acknowledge more research is needed, but the takeaway is clear: setting strict time limits is not enough to protect kids from the real and perceived perils of screen time.
Don't Use Screen Time as a Discipline Tool
Some parents use screen time as an incentive or punishment. Children who misbehave have time taken away from their allotted amount of screen time decreased or taken away altogether.
But a study released last year by researchers at Notre Dame found that kids whose parents used "e-discipline" actually spent more time on screens than those whose parents didn't and regularly exceeded the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of no more than two hours of screen time each day.
The study concluded that "interventions to reduce children’s screen time have little effect."
Schedule Family Time Instead
The other problem with setting strict time limits on screen time is that it sets up a forbidden fruit paradox. Kids think it's something special, so if you give then two hours of screen time every day, they are going to use the full two hours.
David Lord, CEO of JumpStart Games, which makes learning-based games for kids, suggests turning the logic around.
"We are not going to win the battle for limiting their time on their tablets and smartphones, because they’ll use their devices every chance they get," he said. "Given this, rather than trying to limit this technology usage, it’s important for parents to focus on carving out big chunks of time for 'unplugged family time' or outdoor play."
Lord said. "As parents, it’s our responsibility to commit to these bigger activities, where families can interact and teens can learn to detach from their devices, as opposed to trying to take away the devices altogether."
Tech Is a Great Tool for Increasing Creativity
Richard Gall, an editor for the tech publisher Packt, said his company has started a line of publications for kids older than toddlers. But he still thinks it's important for parents to be involved in the process.
Digital literacy, he notes, is quickly becoming almost as important as literacy for school-aged kids.
"Just as we often talk about how important a love of reading is in terms of literacy," he said, "it's important to encourage a certain level of curiosity in children about how things work and how they learn about their own agency in relation to the world."
"That said, we shouldn't be thinking about children's technical and digital literacy as if we're coaching them to be engineers," Gall said. "At that age, what's important is problem solving and creativity — tech is simply another domain in which that can now happen, just as it can in language and literacy."