Is using a tablet to keep your kid occupied lazy parenting?

Now that childhood has gone high-tech, some parents are left feeling guilty about all that screen time.
Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

When my first child was born, I declined all offers of electronic baby toys that flash and squeak at the bash of a button. I had this quaint idea that wooden spoons, crayons and books — you know, the traditional stuff — were all we needed. And then, a year in, we faced our first trans-atlantic flight, and I learned very fast that Sophie the Giraffe has nothing on an iPhone. Anyone who’s watched the viral YouTube films of gurgling babies sliding their chubby little fingers across a touch screen knows how intuitive it is. With easy-to-use interfaces, it’s little wonder toddlers take to touch-screen technology and tablets so easily.

Three years on, we’ve had a second child, purchased two iPads, gone through five iPhones (toddlers love lobbing things), and accumulated enough battery-operated tat to fill a toy shop. It’s not that I’ve abandoned fresh air for free apps, or that my children, now two and four, get Peppa Pig over a paintbrush, but reality sometimes calls for the iNanny (crack-of-dawn wake-ups spring to mind). It’s how a lot of parents use the iPad, I bet. Just in from the daycare dash, Dad is cooking dinner while Mom is sorting socks and unpacking lunches, and so the sprogs get 20 minutes of showtime. Everything in moderation, right?

“Any time there is a massive shift in the tools of life, we don’t know what impact it will have,” says Michaela Wooldridge, a psychology PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, who is researching how technology affects infant and toddler development. “Because these devices are so new, and technology is changing so fast, we haven’t had time to evaluate long-term outcomes.”

Setting screen-time limits, whether it’s TV or tablets, is something almost every parent of a school-age child grapples with, but the debate is beginning at younger and younger ages. The first iPads were released in 2010; many toddlers are what’s called “digital natives.” They have never known a world without them. The Canadian Paediatric Society’s most recent guidelines, updated in 2013, essentially discourage all “screen-based activities” (including tablets and smartphones) for children younger than two years old, and recommend two hours or less of “recreational” screen time a day for school-age kids.

Prying an iPad away from a child obsessed with it is familiar territory for many of us. Toronto mom Hayley Chiaramonte sees the creative value of cult games like “Minecraft,” but is concerned by her eight-year-old daughter’s fixation with the game.

“She’s totally unresponsive when she’s on the iPad. It’s as if she leaves us for another planet,” she says. Together, they have set some ground rules about when she can and cannot use it. “For her, the worst thing in the world is losing her iPad privileges.”

Wooldridge says that experts don’t yet know whether children born three years ago, let’s say, are destined to be even more tech obsessed than an eight-year-old whose early years did not include multiple portable devices. “Infants and toddlers have been completely unrepresented in the research because it wasn’t until recently that they were even considered to be consumers.” But a child’s character and interests will play a part in how drawn they are to media, as will parental habits, she adds.

A 2013 study from Common Sense Media, an American non-profit that studies the effects of media and technology on young users, found that 38 percent of US kids younger than two are using tablets or smartphones — possibly even before they can string a sentence together. (This is up from 10 percent in 2011.) By the age of eight, 72 percent of children have used a smartphone, tablet or similar mobile device.

Based on reports from families, Wooldridge hypothesizes that parents and caregivers are citing “education” as the primary objective when granting screen time to babies and toddlers. “The reality is that when you ask parents how the devices are being used, it is mostly to occupy or distract the child,” she says.

Some families may limit tablets to 20 minutes while stuck in the supermarket cart or during a car trip, while others use them as an in-house babysitter to occupy the kids for hours at a time.

“We’re trying to find out what factors are influencing that variability,” says Wooldridge, pointing to socio-economics, cultural background, parent age and parent education as possible predictors.

But plonking an iPad in a three-year-old’s lap — without a person there to give the experience a human side — probably won’t offer much that is positive, she says. We can praise the latest and greatest apps, and make an argument that screen time is important for kids growing up in today’s tech-filled world, but kids still need to be guided.

“The way infants and toddlers develop and learn is through social interaction, and the device itself can’t provide that. They still need the adult mediating it,” Wooldridge says. “Otherwise, it just becomes a distractor: something they can touch and manipulate. They can get lights, get sounds, and get something talking to them.”

Lisa Guernsey struggled with the topic of technology and what was appropriate for her two daughters, now 11 and nine, so much that she decided to write a book about it, titled Screen Time. Guernsey, who works as a journalist and directs an early education policy program in Washington, DC, tells parents to look at what she calls the three Cs — content, context and child — when making media choices. “Instead of simply saying, ‘Is screen media bad or good for our kids?’ we have to consider the content on the screen, the context in which media is used and your child’s own personal needs,” she says. With the three Cs in mind, media can be a springboard for conversation, discovery and open-ended play. Guernsey explains that some of the positive experiences come when you open up a device with your child, learn how it works, and engage with it together. This could simply mean asking your child questions about the animals in the virtual zoo he’s creating while you unload the dishwasher.

Then come the moments when you want (or need) to pour yourself a cup of tea or glass of wine and read the newspaper. The iPad makes that possible. But there is no reason why a tablet cannot be occupier at one point in the day and a conversation starter at another, says Guernsey.

“As long as we’re maintaining a healthy ratio between moments of non-interaction and interaction, then I think we’re doing just fine.” Used thoughtfully, responsibly and as part of a range of experiences with your child, technology can be an effective tool, says Wooldridge — no need to feel guilty. But, as with any other tool, there is an appropriate time and place for it be introduced based on a child’s developmental capacity. “These devices are not benign,” she adds. “No technology is benign.” What niggles at many of us is the idea that the iPad is somehow replacing a richer experience for our children, like playing chess, climbing a tree or having a meaningful conversation with a parent. Is children’s creativity being sapped, much too soon, by video games and virtual worlds?

It’s not an either-or situation, says Jason Krogh, CEO of Sago Sago, a Canadian company that designs apps for kids. “It’s as if the point of comparison is that you’re going to have a fully engaged conversation with your child as the alternative to them playing with the iPad,” he says. “But we all live in a world where that is not always possible.”

His four-year-old daughter enjoys talking to her vintage Playmobil pieces as much as she does stomping in puddles and serving up animated tea parties on the iPad. There is a time and a place for each activity. Krogh curates apps for his daughter in the same way he might vet the shows she watches and the books she reads. “A children’s book can be good or bad, a children’s toy can be good or bad, and the same applies for any technology-based experience.” He advises parents to be wary of apps with grand educational claims, and to focus more on what’s fun and imaginative. “I’m very much of the belief that what kids need more of is play.” Krogh sites his daughter’s favourite game, Toca Tea Party (from Swedish app developer Toca Boca), as a good example of the app as a toy. “It’s not trying to control the whole experience, but instead acts as a prop for creative play.”

His company’s app “Mini Doodlecast,” a digital painting program that uses the microphone to record what your child is saying while they draw, falls into the category of apps that are fun for kids and parents to use together, because it invites conversation and sparks ideas, says Krogh.

Many of us think of screen time and smartphones as a solitary thing, but Guernsey agrees with Krogh’s take. She would also like to see different types of games and innovative ways of using our devices. “We need to change that by demanding media that promotes social interaction and promotes looking up, and not being so zoomed in,” she says.

It’s exactly that eerily focused zone of concentration that makes the iPad a perfect occupier on long-haul flights, daunting car trips and rainy days at home.

“There’s no mess, the kids are quiet and parents have time to themselves,” says Calgary parenting expert Judy Arnall. “Those are some pretty addictive features.” Arnall recognizes the appeal and convenience of hand-held technology. However, she argues, relying on these devices deprives our kids of any chance at boredom, and boredom is what inspires and enables creativity. “It gives kids time to just sit and think with no distractions — something that we adults struggle to do. We need to model to our kids that it’s OK to do nothing sometimes.”

Do you have fond childhood memories of daydreaming as you gaze out the window of the family station wagon during long road trips? It’s possible that your kids may not — because they’re watching TV or playing on the iPad in the backseat instead.

It does seem to be a double-edged sword. When children are getting antsy in a long lineup or at a restaurant, handing over the iPad is a quick way to pacify them before other patrons start judging us for their whining. Then again, parents also feel like slackers parent for using expensive technology to solve an age-old parenting dilemma, instead of turning it into a teachable moment about practising patience. Without the iPad, says Arnall, your kid might have invented a game for himself, engaged in conversation with grown-ups at the table or started folding napkins into airplanes (and that’s a good thing).

I can’t be the only mother who often falls into the “do as I say, not as I do” school of parenting, as I subtly send a text from the breakfast table. It’s up to us, as parents and caregivers, to teach our children to use the tools of our culture mindfully, and that begins with knowing when to switch them off ourselves. How can I expect my children to focus on one thing at a time if I rarely do? Technology is part of children’s daily lives (both at home and at school), but the way that it’s embedded in their lives is something that we, as parents, still have some control over.

“Set some ground rules with your kids,” advises Arnall. “Block off periods in the day when there is no technology.” This applies as much to parents as it does to children. “Setting your own boundaries is what teaches kids to set their boundaries.”

“The tools only have the power we give them,” echoes Wooldridge.

For now, I’m turning the power off — and resolving to disconnect more often. My kids have been glued to their screens for a tad too long, and so have I. We all need some fresh air.

A version of this article appeared in our January 2014 issue with the headline “Guilty as charged,” pp.39-41.

Read more:
6 simple ways to get a handle on your kids’ screen time
I know I’m a screen addict and that it hurts my kids
Help! My kids are addicted to their gadgets

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