Dear Mr. Dad: The holidays are just around the corner and I’m thinking of giving my 18-month-old my old iPad. She loves playing with it and I think she should have her own. My husband disagrees. What do you think?
A: I’d hold off for a while. There’s a lot of information out there on technology’s effect on children, but very little on toddlers as young as yours. What there is, however, paints a pretty grim picture. Here are the arguments in favor and against.
Pro #1: Our kids see us interacting with screens in every aspect of our lives. Kids who don’t have superior tech skills will be at a disadvantage as they grow up.
Con #1: Children are being pushed to grow up too quickly. What they need is time to relax, enjoy life, and be a kid. The research is clear: young children learn everything better by interacting with their parents than from a machine. They also need to physically interact with their world, something they can’t do with 2D images on a phone or tablet.
Pro #2: It’s only for a few minutes at a time. What harm could there be in that?
Con #2: Researcher Karin Archer found that 62% of children under one-year-old and 89% of children under 2½ had been introduced to at least one mobile device. Pediatrician Catherine Birken and her colleagues found that 20% of children under 18 months were using handheld devices an average of 28 minutes per day. They also found that the more time a child spent on a device, the higher the risk of an “expressive speech delay,” meaning that they have trouble using words and language.
Pro #3: Although computers and tablets aren’t nearly as social as reading, phone- and tablet-based apps are far more interactive than television. Children as young as a year can use computers to learn shapes, colors, numbers, and opposites, and many apps offer opportunities for creativity, without all the mess of finger paints. 2D images are also safer, because they can’t be put in the mouth or swallowed.
Con #3: First, kids under about 2½ aren’t old enough to be able to understand the symbolic nature of what’s on the screen, in other words, that the 2D image of a dog is not a real dog.
Second, children under about 30 months don’t have the physical dexterity to easily manipulate objects on screen. Clicking and applying consistent pressure to drag and drop, for example, is a pretty complicated act.
Third, toddlers learn by actively engaging the world: touching, feeling, pushing, pulling, throwing, tasting, and so on. 2D images don’t allow kids to learn about an object’s weight, texture, and how it looks from a variety of angles. In addition, dragging and dropping blocks to make a tower on a screen is very different from actually trying to balance blocks on top of each other.
Pro #4: Apps are colorful and engaging and kids love ‘em. And it keeps them from getting bored.
Con #4: No child this age should be getting bored. The world and everything in it is new and exciting. App use in moderation shouldn’t be a problem. However, too many parents don’t supervise their children’s mobile device usage or impose adequate time restrictions. As a result, too many kids are spending time on a screen when they should be running around. It’s no coincidence that rates of obesity and overweight are rising, even among infants and toddlers.
I’ve also heard from several pediatricians that some of their young patients who spend a lot of time on devices have poorer fine motor skills and muscle tone than their less digitally savvy patients. And doctors in England’s National Health Service are reporting that many children are starting preschool without the hand strength and dexterity to hold a pencil. They blame overuse of touchscreen devices.
I think the evidence here is pretty clear: toddlers and tech don’t belong together, at least not for a while. That said, I know a lot of readers disagree. So next week, we’ll talk about how to safely introduce your toddler to tech.
Previously published on Mr. Dad
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