Kerryn Boogaard Kerryn Boogaard
Beverly Goldsmith Beverly Goldsmith
Zoe Bingley-Pullin Zoe Bingley-Pullin

Toddlers and touchscreens - how much is enough?:

Toddlers know how to use touchscreens but they are missing out on other vital developmental activities and milestones.
By Fiona Barry
Date: February 18 2014
Editor Rating:

‘One in three kids can use a mobile phone before they can talk’ – this headline makes me twitch.

A recent survey commissioned by US pressure group Common Sense Media and electronic toy manufacturer Vtech says that 38% of 2-year-olds in America have used gadgets like iPhones or tablets for playing games or watching films. This figure has nearly quadrupled in two years! That is a massive and rapid jump in toddler (yes TODDLER) usage of touchscreen devices.

Why am I even using the word ‘toddler’ in the same sentence as ‘touchscreen devices’?! Five or ten years ago this simply wouldn’t have happened, but the way in which young children consume media has drastically changed during that time.

It’s got me twitching not just because as a speech and language therapist I frequently see the result of young children having way too much screen time – delayed attention, talking and understanding skills. But as a mum of two young boys I also know how it’s potentially a very slippery slope once your toddler does get hold of your iPhone or tablet. We’re all busy, we’re all feeling the pinch, we all need another three hours in the day to get everything done.

Let’s face it, the touch screen is the ‘evil genius’ of today’s kid’s entertainment. So simple to use, young children naturally use touch to explore and learn about the world around them. The ‘finger swipe’, it would seem, is an easily mastered motor skill in toddlers – although I’ve not asked my physiotherapy colleagues about this.

You may have seen the now infamous footage on Youtube of a toddler mistaking a magazine for a broken iPad. Only recently I spoke with a professional colleague who remarked that a 2-year-old she had seen was trying to finger swipe the pages on a book she was sharing with him.

The touchscreen offers instant gratification in the form of bright, colourful shapes and enticing sounds. The ultimate cause and effect toy! Of course this is very useful when you need to get the dinner cooked or the washing done. Little ones learn to navigate around a range of icons to select the desired app and play the game without any need for adult help.

But of course – this is where the problem lies.

Apps marketed at very young children are on the rise. A report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that in 2009, almost half (47%) of the top selling apps on the market targeted pre-school aged children. By 2012 that number had increased to almost three quarters (72%). It also found that apps for toddlers and preschoolers are the most popular age category (58%) in educational apps, and has experienced the greatest growth (23%) in recent years.

So it’s no wonder that a similar survey in 2011 found that in America more than a quarter of all parents have downloaded apps for their children to use. Parents want the best for their child – and the market is telling them (rather ferociously) that apps are a great way to do this.

A recent 2013 survey looked into screen time as a whole and stated that children aged 2-4 years average two hours a day of screen time which includes watching TV, playing on the computer and using mobile devices. My advice to families when it comes to screen time is to take a look at the professional guidance for screen time. The recommendation is that parents should limit TV (and other screen time) to no more than half an hour for under-2s and an hour for 3-5 year-olds.

This review also shows that so far there is no evidence to prove any educational benefits for the under 2s watching TV. Toddlers cannot acquire their first words from watching TV – they need real, live interaction with adults to do this. For older children there are some limited benefits to things like vocabulary development and storytelling abilities but only if TV viewing time is restricted. Children who watch lots of TV often score lower on tests of language ability when they are older. What we need is some more up to date research into the specific effects of digital media in toddlers. However, the general consensus is that the effects would be pretty similar to TV watching.

The current advice from the American Academy of Paediatrics is for under 2s to have no screen time at all. Clearly there are lots of different opinions out there as to the specifics of how much screen time is advisable. However, I think most parents would agree that it sounds like common sense to limit screen time for our toddlers and research like this sometimes acts as a useful reminder.

After all – you are the most interesting toy in the house for your child – it just depends on how long your batteries last!

Try these five top tips to entice your child away from the touchscreen:

1.  Think low-tech!

Toddlers today are still made of the same stuff they were before all of these screens appeared. Back then children didn’t need high-tech gadgets to stimulate them so bear this in mind. Try a bottle of bubbles, a jigsaw, or a teddy bear’s picnic – they’ll drop the gadget faster than you can say ‘gizmo’!.

2.  If you have jobs to do try involving your toddler

Helping put shopping or laundry away helps with skills like understanding instructions ‘Put the apples in the cupboard’ and learning new words ‘look – trousers!’. Pots and pans make great instruments or containers for sorting while you’re cooking. Try a game of hide and seek while you’re dusting or cleaning.

3.  Make it messy

Toddlers need to have a broad range of sensory experiences in the early years. Get as messy as you feel able to cope with. Water play is fun even in small doses at the sink. Dry pasta and rice is great for hunting for animal toys in. Playdough is pretty low maintenance but excellent for language and motor skill development.

4.  Share songs and books together

Toddlers need to get familiar with nursery rhymes and have the chance to join in with the words or actions. Try leaving the last word off each line to see if they can join in. Nurture a love of reading in your child by sharing books with them. This will help them become good readers and writers when they start school. Let them explore the book in their own way and try lift the flap or noisy books.

5.  Enjoy screen time together!

Your child will get more benefit from digital media if you do it with them. Watch a program or play a game together and talk about what’s happening. When it’s over switch it off (TV on in the background negatively affects toddler’s play) and do something fun together related to what you’ve just seen. And be a good role model yourself – be honest, do you need to reign your screen time in a bit too?

Since graduating from University College London, Speech and Language Therapist Fiona Barry has worked with thousands of families who visit her with all manner of speech, language and communication needs.  Fiona recently launched Talking Tips for Kids, a new website and free App that provides parents with innovative new tools to maximise efficient communication between parent and child during the pre-school years.  

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