There is a strong debate on the matter of age: when should parents introduce their children to a Smartphone or tablet?
We live in a world ruled by technology and whether we like it or not, our kids will have to master it, in order to have access to modern methods of learning and, yes, to contemporary sources of entertainment.
In this article we take a look at the opinions of few experts in pediatrics, applications design and psychology, in the attempt to clarify some of the dilemmas around the topic.
We all know what a Smartphone is: a cell phone that is so smart it can run its own system and provide the user access to internet, e-mail, phone conversations and creation of videos and photos.
A tablet is a miniature laptop, which grants the user not only the same benefits as the “traditional” laptop, but also the advantage of mobility and a fast navigation thanks to its touch screen.
In the hands of an adult, these technology devices can be used in many ways, but how about a child?
Is age the decisive factor when introducing your child to a high-tech device or are there also other elements to take into consideration?
Experts recommend that children under two years old aren’t granted access to these devices.
In 2013, the “Canadian Pediatric Society” issued an updated guideline which discouraged all “screen-based activities” (including Smartphones and tablets) for children younger than two years old, and recommended no more than two hours of “recreational” screen time per day for school-age kids.
According to Dr. Carolyn Jayness, a learning designer for “Leapfrog Enterprises”, “children under two years of age learn best from real-world experiences and interactions, and each minute spent in front of a screen-based device is a minute when your child is not exploring the world and using their senses, which is extremely important in their development process”.
So it’s not actually the device exposure that can harm your child, but it’s the potential deprivation of time spent in the real world that can have negative effects on him.
The solution is simple: make sure your child, no matter the age, spends more time engaged in human interactions, in nature or playing with traditional toys then she or he does on a Smartphone or tablet.
When it comes to how much time should your child be allowed with a Smartphone or a tablet, we have again, as guidelines, opinions from experts:
“I would recommend no more than a half an hour per sitting for a four to five year old, no more than an hour per sitting for a six to seven year old,” says Jeannie Galindo, a supervisor of instructional technology for a school in Florida.
But the important element in setting limits to kids screen time is not the age, but the ability to handle a certain period of time spent in front of Smartphones or tablets.
For example, as the child grows and is able to identify and indicate what affects him – in a positive or in a negative way, as he or she becomes more aware of her responsibilities as a child – school, homework, house choirs and not just having fun with friends or electronic devices – you can grant her or him more screen time, if you have strong evidence that the child can handle it.
Again the experts are those who provide an answer: the younger the child is, the more parents need to supervise the use of these devices.
Dr. Carolyn Jaynes recommends that parents keep screens in areas where the child’s exposure to media monitored. She indicates also that TVs and computers should be kept out of bedrooms.
It’s important for today’s parents to acknowledge that Smartphones and tablets cannot replace human inter-actions, nor can they replace a baby sitter or any other type of caretakers.
“Common Sense Media”, an American non-profit organisation that studies the effects of technology on young users, has conducted in 2013 a study which revealed that 38% of USA children younger than 2 are using tablets or Smartphones (compared to only 10% in 2011.) By the time they are 8 years old, 72% of USA children have used a tablet, Smartphone or similar smart mobile device.
Experts highlight that children still need to be guided and not just left to be fascinated by the content provided by a hi-tech device.
As Michaela Wooldridge, a psychology PhD candidate at the “University of British Columbia” says, “the way infants and toddlers develop and learn is through social interaction, and the device itself can’t provide that. They still need the adult mediating it“.
“Otherwise, it just becomes a distractor: something they can touch and manipulate. They can get lights, get sounds, and get something talking to them”, she adds.
Moreover, Dr. Carolyn Jaynes talks about the importance of “co-viewing”, which means sharing the experience your child is having with a Smartphone or tablet, in order to help him increase his comprehension skills.
Based on answers provided by families, Michaela Wooldridge estimates that parents and caretakers indicate “education” as the primary objective for granting access to Smartphones or tablets for babies and toddlers.
However, “the reality is that when you ask parents how the devices are being used, it is mostly to occupy or distract the child,” the same psychology PhD candidate says.
Many children are active media users by the age three and this means they can enjoy the benefits of educational content provided by tablets and Smartphones, content that helps them develop their communication skills, their visual memory or their ability to recognize letters and numbers, if the content uses learning methods such as presenting images, repeating and idea or using child voices for the characters in the content.
“It's important to focus on the content and message when making age-appropriate media choices. What children watch and play matters,” says Dr. Carolyn Jaynes.
Parents need to learn the distinction between educational content and entertainment content, she adds.
And this is really easy, as there are tens of applications that can teach your child pretty much anything from time, letters, math, geography, art or music.
Although some of the interactive activities provided are not linked to school subjects, they are still useful to children and help them acquire or improve their reasoning or thinking skills, their creative skills or their nurturing ones.
Well, let’s face it: all parents have had moments in which the only way they managed to calm down their crying children was to hand them the Smartphone or tablet to watch a favorite game activity or a funny family video. It can happen while you are at the supermarket, at your only dinner out in the last 9 months or when you are waiting to enter the doctor’s office.
But there is a huge difference between giving a high-tech device to a child just to keep him busy all the time, the supervised, well-established period of time in which he can use the Smartphone or tablet and the “desperate” times when we need the help of these tools just for brief moments.
Parents that have jobs, need to fix dinner, buy groceries, clean the house, iron clothes and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, can sometimes realize that they cannot do everything with a child hanging by their clothesJ
And while the doctors recommend not to underestimate the amazing learning power granted by reading a book with your child or spending time with him exploring the outdoors, there is no need to torment yourself with guilt because you gave your child the tablet or the Smartphone while you took a 15 minutes shower :)
As Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the “University of North Carolina School of Medicine” in Chapel Hill and spokesperson for the “American Academy of Pediatrics” says, “parents need to be models for their children. While we’re all embracing these great aspects of these digital devices, parents have to strike a balance, turn them off and spend real time with their children. “The real world is a very important place for children to develop cognitive, social and language skills.”
And Michaela Wooldridge indicates that “as long as we’re maintaining a healthy ratio between moments of non-interaction and interaction, then I think we’re doing just fine.”
Used as part of shared experiences with your child, thoughtfully and responsibly, technology can be an effective tool — no need to feel guilty :)
And since we are talking about shared experiences, they are the ones that bring the so-called “quality time” that both you and your child will enjoy and remember in the years to come.
And in some events, it’s not just about what the baby said or did, but also about what he was wearing in that particular moment.
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