Technology For Our Youngest

An article published in the New York Times a few years ago, Is E-Reading Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?, raised the often asked question of how much screen time for our littlest tots is too much?  The article talked about the use of e-readers as a substitute for paper books and whether such early exposure could have a detrimental effect. Despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against screen time for toddlers, for many families, story time is now often on a tablet. While most agree that early exposure to reading provides a myriad of benefits including the development of language and social skills, there is still much debate over how that reading should occur.

The proponents and publishers of e-books claim that the interactivity of such devices actually provides educational benefits rather than serving as mere distractions. On the flip side, some researchers have shown that parents who read conventional books, engage more in “dialogic reading” (the back and forth discussion of the story) that has been shown to be critical in a child’s language development. They contend also that children can become so focused on the technology aspect of the device that parents are constantly having to redirect them back to the story and way from swiping or pushing buttons on the screen. Another concern that was raised was that parents may ultimately end up abdicating their reading responsibilities to e-books and that they merely become the tv babysitters of this generation. In reality, the truth of how digital technology will affect the process of learning to read is largely unknown. These devices have not been around for long enough to know exactly what effect they will have on learning.

For now, here is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Limit the amount of total entertainment screen time to <1 to 2 hours per day.
  • Discourage screen media exposure for children <2 years of age.
  • Keep the TV set and Internet- connected electronic devices out of the child’s bedroom.
  • Monitor what media children are using and accessing, including any web sites they are visiting and social media sites they may be using.
  • Co-view TV, movies, and videos with children and teenagers, and use this as a way of discussing important family values.
  • Model active parenting by establishing a family home use plan for all media. As part of the plan, enforce a mealtime and bedtime “curfew” for media devices, including cell phones.
  • Establish reasonable but firm rules about cell phones, texting, internet, and social media use.

I think the issue is complicated. I’m a lover of books and my kids still prefer paper books to e-readers. I have to confess that I actually feel lucky to have had both of my children before the iPad even existed (can you believe it’s only been around since 2010!). I never had to face the decision of whether or not I would distract my 2 year old with a hand-held device. Today’s parents face much greater challenges. Though they may make a commitment to adhere to the AAP recommendations on limiting screen time, it’s all around us. If you’ve ever seen a toddler with a hand-held device you know that it has a stunning capacity to captivate them. And whether, as the article mentions, it’s keeping a 2 year old from jumping in the pool during big sister’s swim lesson or allowing you to make your way through the grocery store, the temptation to whip out a device is strong. I’m not exactly sure what the “right” answer is and as I often say, the answer may look different for different families. Here is what I have found works for us and might be helpful for your family:


  • Hold off for as long as you can. Whether it’s television, an iPad or an iPhone. Once you introduce the device, it’s hard to go back. Despite knowing how challenging it may be, I recommend avoiding the use of technology for kids under age two. It will require more effort and patience, but packing books, blocks, and crayons are great alternatives. By offering these options to our children,  we can promote creativity, self soothing and even patience. As they get older, I like to think of technology time as a treat — special when it’s available, not all the time and even better if it’s shared.
  • We have to walk the walk. It continues to be a challenge for me as well, but how often do we, ourselves, turn to our phones and other devices while waiting for swim practice to be over? It’s tempting to answer a few emails and texts or get some work done but when we turn to our devices the minute we find ourselves idle, we also show our children how to be around technology. I’m not advocating that we never use these opportunities to tackle our to do list or even to simply have some down time but rather, that we be more mindful of the example that we set. I try to carry a book and a deck of cards in my purse most days. The book for me and the deck of cards should one of my children complain of boredom while waiting for the other. I still find myself answering messages and emails but I’m hoping to appreciate more the stillness between waiting times.
  • If there is an opportunity to engage with your child, put away the devices. I don’t mean all the time. But when it’s really not that important, just sit together. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of watching a toddler try to get the attention of the adult near them to point out a dog or bird, only to find the parent affixed to their self phone. It makes me pause, not only because I see a missed opportunity for that parent to engage with that child but because it makes me wonder how often I have done the same.
  • Find ways to engage with your children using technology. I remember my when my son first started playing games on the iPad, I was very conflicted. On the one hand, I knew that it was fun for him and something he and his friends would talk about and even bond over. On the other hand, I didn’t want the technology to replace face to face interactions and interfere with normal social skills. While I had little understanding of the games he was playing, my husband grew up playing video games and saw it as an opportunity for fun and as a way to spend some time together. So even when they are not in front of a screen they talk about the worlds that they have built, what level they’ll get to next or how many gems they’ve mined. Instead of using technology as an isolating activity, by actively participating with him, my husband has been able to share in the experience with him and it’s something they enjoy together.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. There is a lot of pressure for kids to engage in technology and it offers some amazingly creative ways to learn (the first time I saw a smart board in my kids’ class rooms I was blown away!). But there is a time and a place for it. I support you in your efforts to provide guidance for your kids surrounding the use of technology.

Whether they are 2 or 12, each age presents its challenges when it comes to technology. It’s hard to imagine that when I was growing up there was no internet let alone cell phones and other digital devices. Our challenge is to embrace all of the wonder and creativity that technology offers while maintaining our values and helping our children to thrive.