Managing toddlers' first contact with smart devices

  • Awareness
  • 17/12/2019
  • Estonian Safer Internet Centre

Increasingly, children's environments are very media oriented, and they are starting to use smart devices at an ever-younger age. Elina Nevski, lecturer at Tallinn University School of Educational Sciences, explains precisely why digital devices can be beneficial or detrimental to toddlers' development, and how parents can make the most of it.

In many homes, smart devices (smartphones and tablets) are common and popular, with studies showing that even the youngest of children (aged 0-3) are increasingly accessing screens. For the most part, a smart device serves as a source of entertainment for a toddler: they mainly watch videos and cartoons on YouTube, play simple games, make video calls with family members (such as grandparents), and create or browse random content.
 
International studies show that toddlers become regular media consumers during their first years of life – contact with apps and emulation of touch gestures begins very early. But should a child under two years of age be using a smart device at all? Is it good or bad for their development? Where do we draw the line?
 

The American Academy of Pediatrics has assembled a number of guidelines concerning children and technology. One suggestion is that a child under one and a half year of age should not have any access to screens (no touch screen or TV). Why? The ability of a toddler to learn is primarily related to real-life situations, where learning about the world applies to all their senses. It is important for a child to touch, smell, suck, shake, throw, and so on. A screen does not allow this.

In the learning process, adults need to set an example and give guidance. Working together and repeating behaviour are the key components. When the activity on the screen is supervised by an adult, active communication between the child and the parent is taking place.

Using a smart device requires a smart approach. Despite the suggestion to not give or show a screen to a child under one-and-a-half-year-old, there are a number of parents who have made the decision to do so. This is due to the fact that the smart device is seen as a supporter of the child's development, that it facilitates the learning of letters and numbers and enhances imagination and creativity. But is that really so?

In fact, no application or smart device is inherently bad. The question lies in the purpose of using the device: what content the child is consuming and what activities they are doing. If a smart tool is given the role of a nanny and the child watches random videos for hours without parental assistance or if a smart tool is granted to the child as a means of controlling their bad mood or behaviour, display time certainly doe not support the child's development. Likewise, a parent should not immediately get excited about the child's skills in using the device, if, for example, they turn the tablet on or off, find a game they like and can play it perfectly. Toddlers are good at imitating and repeating patterns they have learned and it does not require much effort from them. Imitating does not automatically mean that the child is learning something new.

Also questionable is the impact it has when the parent's attention is on the smart device while talking to the child, eating with them or putting them to sleep. It is the parent's behaviour with the smart device that the child imitates and embraces. The saying "Follow my words, not my deeds" does not apply here. Parents and other family members (brothers, sisters and siblings) have to be role models for toddlers when using their smart devices.

A smart tool is not bad if you use it appropriately. Parents who allow their toddler to use a smart device at a very young age should not feel guilty because the time spent with the screen can have great variation in quality. This is even more the case when the parent does not only monitor the time the child spends with the device but observes their behaviour and activities as well. Assessing the child's mood is extremely important: whether they sleep as much as necessary, whether there are any changes in their social behaviour, whether they are interested in other activities, and so on.

The child learns by means of a smart device in cases where the parent supports the child's activities and is interested in what the child is doing with the device, asking questions, inviting them to perform something on the screen, encouraging and recognising them and being helpful if they get in trouble or do not experience success. One key action to support the development of the toddler is adult supervision, where the parent is aware of what applications they have downloaded, what videos the child is watching and where communication between the child and the parent takes place while the child is using the smart device. If the use of a smart device is supervised by the parent, the screen time will affect the child positively, just like traditional books or toys.

Agreements with toddlers about using smart devices are best done when they are given permission to use technology. When problems occur, the child should be involved in finding solutions. Children and teenagers themselves have said that banning the device makes them rather stubborn. The same applies in the adults' world; deprivation of freedom leads to conflict. The confiscation needs explanation, which makes it easier to make agreements, because even a one and a half-year-old can act up when a smart device is taken away.

Recommendations for parents

  • Between the age of 0 and 2, a toddler does not need a screen for their development; they learn from real-life situations.
  • Less is more: a toddler (aged 0-3) should not use smart devices and other screens for more than 30 minutes per day.
  • Toddlers should be instructed when using a smart device: the parent discusses the actions happening on the screen with them, monitors and evaluates their behaviour at the time and afterwards – this way, screen time is supporting the child's development.
  • A smart device should not be a means of reward or punishment.
  • A child aged 2 to 5 should not use smart devices and other screens for more than an hour per day.
  • Dinner time and bedtime should be a media-free moment, when no one can use a smartphone or tablet or watch TV.
  • Parents and other family members must be role models for toddlers when using their smart devices – toddlers imitate what they see.
  • To understand the purpose and child-friendliness of apps, the parent should read the instructions and play the game themselves before allowing their child to play.

Find out more information about the work of the Estonian Safer Internet Centre (SIC) generally, including its awareness raising, helpline, hotline and youth participation services on the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) portal, or find similar information for Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.


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