Should Your Toddler or Preschooler Use an iPad?

And how long should they be allowed to use it?

To iPad or not to iPad, that is the question. At least for the digital age parent. Whether you are the parent of a newborn, a toddler, a preschooler, or a school-aged child, the question of whether the child should use an iPad (and how much!) becomes ever more pressing, especially as similar-aged children huddle around tablets at restaurants, concerts, sporting events and almost any place where both children and adults gather together. In fact, the few holdouts where you don't see a mass of children focused on the digital world are those places that focus on the child: the playground or the swimming pool.

Is this good for our children? Should your child use an iPad? Or should you avoid it?

The answer: Yes. Sort of. Maybe. In moderation.

It seems everyone has an opinion on the iPad. We have people arguing that tablet use by toddlers is tantamount to child abuse and those who believe there are good educational uses for them.

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics is a little confused, having updated their longstanding policy that screen time should be avoided at all cost by those two and younger to a more nuanced approach that we live in a digital world and that the content itself should be judged rather than the device that holds the content. Which sounds nice, but isn't quite a practical guideline.

Kids Need to Be Bored

A mother plays with an iPad with her kids
Caiaimage / Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Let's start with something that isn't quite obvious to everyone: it's good for a kid to be bored. This applies to the two-year-old, the six-year-old and the twelve-year-old. One thing the iPad shouldn't be is the end-all-be-all cure for boredom. There are much better ways to respond than handing the kid an iPad.

It is not about the cure. It is about the hunt for the cure. Kids need to stretch their creative muscles and engage their imagination. They can do this by playing with dolls, drawing with crayons, building with play-do or Legos, or any one of hundreds of other non-digital activities. In this way they not only engage their creativity, they learn more about their own interests. 

Kids Need to Interact With Other Kids

Imagine a world where every time a toddler argued with another child over a toy they were both given a tablet. When would they ever learn how to be frustrated, how to overcome conflict, and how to share? These are some of the dangers pediatric psychologists fear when they warn against tablet use. It is not just a question of how much (or little) the child is learning from the tablet, it is also what they aren't learning when they are using the tablet.

Children learn through play. And an important element of this is interaction. Children learn by interacting with the world, from learning to open a door by twisting a knob to learning how to deal with frustration when a headstrong playmate takes a favorite toy or refuses to play a favorite game.

The Displacement of Learning

One thing these two concepts have in common is how they displace key elements of learning and child growth. It isn't so much that the use of the iPad is doing harm to the child — in fact, iPad use can be good — it's that time with the iPad can take away from other vital lessons the child must learn.

While children gathered around an iPad are being social in the sense that they are together, they aren't being social in the sense of playing with one another. This is especially true when each child has their own device and are thus locked into their own virtual world. This time around the iPad takes away from time that could be spent playing outdoors, using their imagination to defend a make-believe castle or simply telling each other stories.

And this is just as true for the lone child as it is for the group of children. When a child is playing with an iPad, they aren't feeling the tactile sensation of opening a book and touching the letters on the page. They aren't building a fort with sheets and chairs, and they aren't baking an imaginary cake for their baby doll.

It is this displacement of learning that can become the true danger of the iPad when it is used too much.

Learning With the iPad

The American Academy of Pediatrics' revised recommendations on screen time come as new research reveals how apps can be just as effective as real-world lessons on learning to read in children as young as 24 months. Unfortunately, research in this field is still very limited and there isn't much to go on for educational applications beyond reading.

By way of comparison, the study referenced how television programs such as Sesame Street usually don't provide educational benefits until the child hits 30 months. This is about the same time as the child learns to interact with the television by spouting out the answer to questions posed on the show. The iPad, it seems, can generate some of that interaction that is so important for learning at a younger age, which demonstrates its potential both as an educational tool and a good purchase for a parent.

Everything in Moderation

My wife's favorite quote is "everything in moderation." We live in a black-and-white society where people often deal in absolutes, but in truth, the world is very gray. The iPad can be a determent to a child's learning, but it can also be a real boon. The answer to the puzzle lies in moderation.

As the father of a five-year-old and someone who has written about the iPad since before my daughter was born, I've paid special attention to the subject of children and tablets. My daughter received her first iPad at the age of 18 months. This wasn't a conscious decision to introduce her to the wonderful world of digital entertainment and education. Instead, she received her first iPad because I noticed the old one I intended to sell had a small crack in the screen. I knew this would reduce the value, so I elected to wrap it in a protective case and let her use it.

My rule of thumb before she turned two was no more than an hour. This hour limit included both the television and the iPad. As she turned two and then three, I slowly increased this to an hour and a half and then two hours. I was never strict about it. If she had a little more than her limit on one day, I just made sure we did other activities the next day.

At five, my daughter is still not allowed an iPad in the car unless we are taking an extended trip. If we are driving around town, she's allowed dolls, books, or other toys. Mostly, she must use her imagination to entertain herself. This also applies at the dinner table whether we are at home or out at a restaurant. These are times when we interact as a family.

These are our rules. And it is important to have rules, but you should not feel like you have to follow someone else's rules. The real key to this puzzle is understanding that (1) iPad time isn't a bad time, (2) kids need to learn and play with other kids, and (3) kids need to learn to play alone without a digital babysitter.

If you prefer to give your kid an iPad at the dinner table so you and your spouse can enjoy each other's company, there is definitely nothing wrong with that! After all, don't we all hate the person that thinks everyone should parent their child like they parent their child? Instead of restricting your child's use of the iPad at the table, perhaps you might restrict it after school until the time they get to the dinner table.

How to Use the iPad and How Much Time to Spend With It?

Instead of thinking of it as hard set rules, think of iPad use as units of time. If you don't mind your child playing with the iPad at the dinner table, count that as a unit of iPad use. Perhaps they get a second unit of iPad use after their shower and before bedtime. On the flip side, the time between getting home and dinner can be devoted to playtime and the time between dinner and the shower can be homework time. Or vice-versa.

How Many Units?

While we still lack research on just how helpful the iPad can be to early childhood learning, it is clear that toddlers aged two or older get a lot more out of tablets than before the age of two. This shouldn't be too surprising. Two-year-olds are better at a lot of things compared to younger toddlers. But what is important to remember is this is the age where kids are really starting to figure out language, and interacting with their parents and siblings is a huge part of that learning process.

The new American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines don't answer the question of how much time should a toddler or preschooler use a tablet. However, one of the authors does take a stab at it. Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis wrote about media use before the age of 2 in an article in JAMA Pediatrics and pointed to an hour in what he admitted was a completely arbitrary number.

There simply isn't enough research to come to a scientific conclusion on the issue, but as I mentioned, I used the same time limit of an hour with my daughter before she turned two. There is no doubt toddlers can learn some things from a tablet. They are very interactive devices. And the simple fact of introducing them to technology can be a good thing, but at that age, much more than an hour a day might displace other learning.

My personal recommendation is to add a half-hour per year of the child until they have about 2-2.5 hours of iPad and TV time. I offset this time by having specific times of the day when the iPad and television are not allowed. For our family, that is at meals (lunch and dinner) and in the car. We do make exceptions for long car trips. She's also not allowed to bring an iPad when going to daycare or similar gatherings where there are other children, even if the daycare or child camp allows an iPad. And she's not allowed TV or an iPad for at least an hour after she comes home from school.

We came up with these guidelines to ensure she had the opportunity to use her imagination in the car, interact with other kids when she was around them, and time to play non-digital games, which can be very important to learning.

If you plan on using the iPad as an educational tool as well as a great toy, remember that interaction can be the best form of learning. This can mean using the iPad with your child. Endless Alphabet is one of many great educational apps that are even better with the parent. In Endless Alphabet, kids put words together by dragging the letter to the outline of the letter in the already-spelled words. While the child is dragging the letter, the letter's character repeats the phonetic sound of the letter. My daughter and I turned it into a game where I would say the sound of a letter and she had to pick out the right one to place in the word.

This type of interaction can help supercharge an already educational app. Most pediatricians and child psychologists agree that interaction is very important to early learning. Spending time playing together is a great way to interact, especially for toddlers.

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