Should you let your toddler play with your iPad?

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Should you let your toddler play with your iPad?

Long, long gone are the days of stickball, AOL, and Sega Genesis. No more kites. No more dial-up. No more blowing on video games to make them load. Self-entertainment is as quick as a power button with a wait time of mere seconds.

And since you’re an adult, what you do with entertainment is on you. You get to decide how far is too far and whether or not you’ve reached your data limit—literally and figuratively—for the day.

But what about your child? How much entertainment is too much for them? My generation used to be plopped down in living rooms as cable television washed over us (and look how good we turned out!). Are iPads and other tablets (like Amazon Fire Kids Edition or LeapFrog Epic) the new cable television? Are iPads the new babysitters? What kind of games are your child playing and what are they learning from them? More importantly, what are they not learning and missing out on experiencing because of them — iPads, tablets, games, and entertainment devices?

"As with many parenting decisions, there is often not necessarily one right answer and there is conflicting research which complicates the decision making process," says Layne Raskin, licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Everyday Parenting Psychology. "There are some studies that suggest any screen time for children, especially infants and toddlers, can be damaging and have negative consequences while other research suggests positive effects."

Raskin’s right, of course. (I know you wanted a YES or NO answer to that question, but you know life isn’t that simple.) There are pros and cons to letting your toddler use your iPad, but ultimately it’s your decision.

"Babies are social beings and are born into the world primed to connect and engage with others," explains Raskin. "A toddler may learn a color or number from using an iPad but will additionally learn social and emotional skills through the learning process with a caregiver. So perhaps the question is not if they will learn from using a device, but what learning opportunities will be missed without the social interaction?"

What are the pros of letting your toddler use your iPad?

When making the decision whether or not to let your child use an iPad, here are four reasons why letting your toddler use your tablet can be beneficial.

1. iPads can help toddlers learn

Whether it’s colors, numbers, sounds, or words, iPads can be extremely educational. They even provide technical and media literacy, says Carly A. Kocurek, game designer, researcher, and author of Coin-Operated Americans. "If a child enjoys singing, ABC Music, an app designed to teach children about musical terms and instruments, might be of interest," says Jennifer L. Miller, expert in early childhood development and faculty member of the Lewis College of Human Sciences at Illinois Institute. "In this app, each musical word has a video and directed activities to enhance learning. A great feature of this app is a simple interface so children won’t get stuck and it allows them to be creative. In Sago Mini Doodlecast, children draw and talk to create their own videos. Various story prompts are displayed to help facilitate a variety of stories. At the end, the product can be saved so parents can experience their final creation."

2. iPads give parents a break

Some parents allow their child to use an iPad in order to take a break, complete a task, or to care for another child, and it may be the parent's only option, says Raskin. Parents are often under so much pressure and strained for time that giving their child an iPad for an hour or two can alleviate some serious stress.

3. iPads can strengthen parent-child relationships

If a parent is engaged with his child as he plays on the iPad—asking questions, interacting, and being involved—both parties can truly enjoy the experience together. For example, a parent can ask the child questions about what was seen or heard or use real world examples to make connections to what was seen on the device, suggests Raskin. And Kocurek agrees: "No matter what, one of the best things parents can do is to engage their child around what they’re watching or doing on the iPad. So, if your child is watching a kitten video, you can talk to them about kittens. If they’re playing a game with farm animals, ask them to make animal sounds."

4. iPads can expand toddlers' cognitive skills

According to Psychology Today, "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." Ummm, what? Basically, touchscreens give toddlers heightened levels of cognitive activity and stimulation, specifically in ways that traditional toys and everyday experiences simply cannot compete. In fact, the University of London performed a study and found that babies aged six to ten months old scored higher on number recognition tests after they were first shown the numbers on a tablet.

What are the cons of letting your toddler use your iPad?

With any controversial topic, there are pros and cons. Here are four reasons why letting your toddler use your iPad can be problematic.

1. iPads can affect toddlers' social skills

Especially if your toddler’s iPad usage is not monitored or limited. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limited use—no more than one to two hours per day—to avoid overexposure which they feel is detrimental to the social and emotional development of children. Children learn best from interactions with others, reminds Raskin, and too much screen time can hinder that.

2. iPads are bad for toddlers' eyes

I’m sure you’ve been told to turn off your computer or smartphone before bed. And I’m sure you didn’t listen, right? Again, as aforementioned, what you do is your decision because you’re an adult. But for the sake of your child, be smart about his tablet screen time. According to The Daily Telegraph, children who use tablets (and smartphones) are at risk for serious eye damage because of blue light emissions from the devices. (Fortunately, Apple is trying to address this problem with Night Shift mode.) Pro tip: Keep iPads out of your child’s bedroom because a) your kid will play with it all night; and b) the screen lighting will disrupt his sleep and impact how tired and alert he is the next day.

3. iPads are too often used as bribes

"If a child is given an iPad every time she is bored or upset, that child is not being given opportunities to develop important social and emotional skills that they will need as they continue to grow and develop," explains Raskin. "For example, if a child is frustrated and given the iPad to calm down, they may not develop much needed self-regulation skills and frustration tolerance. If a child is given an iPad because she is bored, that child has lost an opportunity to use her imagination and problem solving skills."

4. iPad games are not always age-appropriate

Interactive media (i.e. iPad games) are better than non-interactive media (i.e. television and videos) because it engages the child more. That being said, parents need to look for apps that are age-appropriate, says Kocurek. (She suggests Common Sense Media because it rates a lot of media for age-appropriateness and is a really good resource.) "Researchers are just now trying to understand how children learn from electronic devices such as mobile phones and tablets," says Miller. "We know a lot about how children can learn from television but we’re just starting to understand how children can learn from iPads. Because of that, the best thing a parent can do is to look for apps that are age and content appropriate. It might be useful for parents to play the game with their child a few times before letting them play alone to ensure it is appropriate."

Making the final decision

If you’re still stuck on whether or not to let your child use your iPad—especially after reading all the pros and cons—ask yourself some questions:

  • How old is your child? When it comes to letting her play with your iPad, some experts suggest waiting until she’s in preschool. Why? Because when children are young, they’re at their most creative and imaginative. And since they haven’t yet been screwed up by society—i.e. influenced by reality TV, media, and terrible celebrity role models—it’s nice watching and letting them learn, explore, develop, and experience the world around them without constantly being transfixed on a tablet screen.

  • How much time is she on it? Current research suggests for children 2 years and up, using these devices is probably fine for up to two hours a day, says Kocurek.

  • What is your child doing on the device? Because she’s a toddler, there’s a good chance she’s playing games and not reading the Wall Street Journal or Jezebel. However, is she playing games that are more educational or more entertaining? Are the games and content age-appropriate? Remember that some of the worst things in the world are only a Google search away.

Yes, iPads are fun, engaging, and can provide fantastic educational benefits. However, too much screen time can result in social and development issues so you have to remember that moderation is key. It’s also important to monitor your child’s iPad use and engage and interact with him when you can because you never want a device to replace physical and emotional contact and real-life connections. (Kocurek and Miller suggest the apps Bugsy Preschool, Peekaboo Barn, and Hat Monkey because they all maximize parent-child interactions, are great for development, and provide a fun activity that engages the child while providing an opportunity for parent and child to play together.) Human relationships are vital, especially with your child and especially as he develops.

But ultimately, when it comes to iPad usage for your toddler, the final decision is yours. Since there are both pros and cons, you have to figure out what works best for your child, yourself, and your family.

Image: Honza Soukup