Question: “My toddler has discovered my iPad, and now she loves playing with it. Should I feel guilty about letting her use it? Or are there benefits of iPads for toddlers?”
Of course your toddler is drawn to a shiny, colorful screen that responds to her touch by lighting up, moving, and making noise (read: coolest toy ever). And no doubt you’ve figured out that your iPad can magically captivate and occupy your tot during waits at the doctor’s office and long car rides. Good for you for giving her fascination real thought, but you can lose the guilt on this issue: Though experts haven’t fully figured out the downsides or benefits of iPads for kids (even if you can’t remember how you lived without it, since the iPad was only introduced in 2010), there is no evidence that using an iPad will harm your toddler’s physical or cognitive development — as long as you practice moderation.
And rest assured you’re not the only mama who has passed her tablet on to her tot. It’s now commonplace to see kids as young as one and two years old adeptly navigating touch screens with their tiny fingers mere months after they’ve mastered the pincer grasp. In fact, a 2011 study from the nonprofit group Common Sense Media found that more than half of all children have access to a touch device such as an iPad or smartphone. The study also found that more than a quarter of parents have downloaded apps specifically for their kids to use. Since those percentages have only increased over the years, it’s important for parents to know both the pros and cons of toddlers’ tablet use — and to put some rules in place.
The benefits of iPads for kids
Not only is the iPad an engaging toy that’s small enough to fit into your bag and take on the go, but some studies indicate that it can have real educational benefits for young children. Research sponsored by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that certain apps may improve children’s vocabulary and math skills. There is also evidence that in children with cognitive delays iPad apps can boost language use and social interaction.
While too much screen time is always a concern for parents since it has been linked to attention and conduct problems in children, a 2013 study published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood found that digital games (which are interactive and can foster creativity) seem to affect children differently than TV (which is not typically interactive). The researchers discovered that while excessive TV watching slightly increased a child’s risk for conduct problems, age-appropriate digital games did not.
Of course, iPads can also be just plain fun for kids. You wouldn’t feel guilty about letting your toddler have fun playing a game like Candy Land, so why feel guilty about letting her have fun with the Candy Land app on your iPad?
The pitfalls of iPads for kids — and some guidelines
Even though there may be benefits of iPads for kids, that doesn’t mean you should let your child use an iPad for hours on end or stick a screen in front of her face every time she’s in a waiting room, since that’ll keep her from learning how to occupy herself with her thoughts and imagination.
Also keep in mind that iPad use should not crowd out other toys, games, physical activity, creative free play, and face-to-face social interaction. After all, a screen offers a limited sensory environment and no physical exertion. Your child can’t feel an app the way she can feel her stuffed animal or her dress-up clothes. She can’t smell an app the way she can smell the cookies you bake together. She can’t hold and manipulate an app the way she can hold and stack blocks or Legos. She can’t run with an app the way she can romp in the fresh air, and she can’t connect with an app the way she can when she hugs you. All of these real-world activities offer rich opportunities for your toddler to use her body and experience her environment and human relationships. So while you don’t need to feel guilty about letting her use your iPad in moderation, make sure it’s just one of many activities she gets to learn from, explore, and enjoy.
When it comes to kids and iPads, your best bet is to follow the guidelines that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has set regarding other screen time. The AAP recommends no more than two hours of screen time (such as TV, computers, and video games) per day for kids two and older, and ideally no screen time for children younger than two. More screen-time strategies: Keep screens out of your child’s bedroom since they are stimulating and can interfere with sleep, monitor your child’s viewing and apps to make sure content is appropriate, and talk to your child about the programs and apps she’s using. You can check out A Matter of App for recommendations from a developmental psychologist and media researcher.
Hope you and your tot have (digital and real-life) fun!