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Jeff Shuford: Should You Let Your Toddler Play with Your Tablet?

Handing electronics to a toddler is an easy way to entertain them, and educational software can teach children about numbers, letters, and colors.

Mother and son using digital tablet --- Image by © Mike Kemp/Blend Images/Corbis
Mother and son using digital tablet --- Image by © Mike Kemp/Blend Images/Corbis

Handing electronics to a toddler is an easy way to entertain them, and educational software can teach children about numbers, letters, and colors. A tablet also gives frazzled parents a much-needed break at times. So, why does the American Academy of Pediatrics say you should limit electronic “screen time” for children under two?

Toddlers are here to learn

Once your baby becomes mobile, they are always on the move and getting into everything. That’s because it’s their job to learn how the world works. Adults tend to think of early education in terms of learning how to count or memorize the names of colors and letters, but a toddler has much more complex and vital work to do.

They’re learning how to use their muscles and how to interpret the information their eyes give them– how to judge how far away something is, what something that feels soft or hard looks like, how a transparent surface like glassworks. So much of everyday play, like scribbling with crayons, banging a wooden spoon on the floor, or pulling dish towels out of a drawer, embodies this work.

Quiet children are checked out of the world

All of this active learning is exhausting for parents, and television, tablets, and phones offer a precious break at times. However, a quiet toddler watching TV or interacting with a game on the phone is in a trance-like state, completely disengaged from the world around them. Researchers have observed that children who are engaged with tablets don’t even respond to someone calling their name or speaking directly to them. We don’t know what impact it has on a child’s development to spend time in this state.

Physical skills

During infancy and early childhood, children are learning excellent motor skills by pinching, grabbing, lifting, shaking, and manipulating things. A newborn has no control over their arms and legs at all; at six months, they can’t pick up small objects with their fingers. Playing with crayons, smashing modeling clay, and stacking blocks help develop neural connections and build strength in the hands and arms. Experts are concerned that spending too much time with a screen instead of real-life handling objects could impact the development needed later for writing and typing.

Early physics lessons

In the natural world, things look smaller when they’re far away. Some objects are heavy, and some are light. Gravity pulls things to the floor if you let go of them. However, on a tablet, nothing has weight, mass, or depth. For a child who is just learning how the world works, this could be confusing and slow down their understanding of the most fundamental concepts of physics.

Social skills

A big chore of early childhood is to figure out how other people work. They’re noticing that their behavior sometimes causes the people around them to smile or laugh, and sometimes makes people angry. They’re also learning how to self-soothe and manage their moods. Toddlers don’t know anything about empathy, taking turns, or sharing until someone teaches them. They also have to learn how to manage their own emotions, self-soothe, and develop self-control to manage their behavior. While they’re in front of the television, tablet, or phone, they’re taking a break from this work as well.

Should you shelter your child entirely from technology? Some parents do, but others want children to feel comfortable with tech from an early age. A table or smartphone can be a useful tool to help your child through a stressful situation, like getting a shot or riding in an airplane. However, if you want your child to spend most of their day building their neural connections, gross and fine motor skills, social ability, and understanding of the physical world, you should guard against screen time becoming part of their daily life.

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