Babies and toddlers love playing with smartphones and tablets, and quickly get the hang of them. When you're a busy parent, it’s an easy way to keep your baby or young child entertained while you cook the dinner or finish a car journey. You may also feel it's important for your child to get a head start on learning digital skills. But many experts worry that too much screen time may be harmful for babies and children, even at a very young age. The professional body for paediatricians, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says that children are exposed to screens for longer amounts of time than ever before. This widespread access to smartphones, tablets, games consoles, TVs and laptops is causing concern amongst doctors in the UK and internationally. Touch-screen technology makes it very easy for even babies to use tablets. Doctors are concerned about how screen use affects children's rapidly developing brains. Doctors say that over-exposure has an impact on attention span and concentration, as well as appetite control. Screen time encourages a more sedentary lifestyle. Babies should be encouraged to explore the world physically and toddlers need to be active for three hours a day to grow healthily. Research needs time to catch up with the technology of mobile devices, so the evidence is not always clear or consistent. But we've rounded up what information there is to help you make the best decisions as a parent.
How much screen time should my child have?
Common advice for the under-twos is to allow no screen time at all. If you decide to let your baby or toddler play with your device, try keeping it to 15 or 20 minutes, when their attention is likely to fade anyway. Be ready with something new and interesting to do next. For older children, doctors suggest a limit of one or two hours of total screen time a day. That means TV, DVDs and computers as well as mobile devices. This is also a common recommendation in countries like the US, Canada and Australia. As well as the length of time, think about how using a screen fits into your child's life. You could use it as an occasional treat or during car journeys, for example.Help your child to see digital media as one of many possible activities - sometimes an old blanket over the dining table will keep them happy for just as long. Be aware of how much screen time you engage in at home. There is a link between how much TV you as a parent watch and how much your child watches, so try to lead by example. And there’s wide expert agreement that TV, computers and games should not be switched on during mealtimes. Mealtimes are an important chance for families to build good eating habits and enjoy a chat. Watching TV while feeding your baby or child can mean that you miss the cues that she has had enough. Your child too may be distracted and not notice when she feels full. It is important to be responsive to your baby when feeding them and screen time can get in the way for all of you.
Are educational apps helpful?
Most of the research on electronic media and education is on TV, with some additional studies on computers and video games. It’s possible that the different nature of apps could give different results, once researchers have had more time to study them. Based on what we already know, the answer depends a lot on the child’s age. In the under-twos, there is limited evidence of benefits, such as increasing vocabulary. But other studies suggest that the under-twos do not learn much from electronic media. Using screens might hold back the development of language and thinking skills. It's also easy for you to overestimate how much your baby is learning. As your child gets older, she'll have an increasing ability to learn from electronic media. Some research has found that some apps can build vocabulary and literacy skills. Quality is important, though. Look for apps that: Are right for your child’s age. Make her laugh. Give your child achievable goals. Encourage parents to join in.At any age, your involvement is really important. Your child will probably learn a lot more if you spend time playing on apps with her, rather than leaving her to do it on her own.
How do e-readers compare to traditional books?
For reluctant readers, e-books may be one way to catch their interest. And young children enjoy sharing them at school or nursery. But when you are reading an e-book to your child, you may both be distracted from the story and forget some of the details. This can happen because you spend more time explaining how the device works, and give less attention to the actual content. Lots of stimulating, interactive features can have the same effect. Some e-books read the story to your child. This limits your interaction with her and possibly shuts you out of the experience.Interestingly, in one study, parents with tablets in the home still preferred traditional books over e-books for their young children.
How can I make the most of technology?
Digital media is part of daily life, and your child is likely to be very adept at using it from a young age. As a parent, you can guide your child by setting rules and expectations early on. Smartphones and tablets are just one part of the media mix that children encounter every day, so it makes sense to take an overview.
Doctors advise some simple steps to keep screen time in check:
Ø Limit your toddler's exposure as much as possible. Bear in mind that, as a busy parent, it's easy to overestimate how active your child is.
Ø Keep TVs and computers out of your child's bedroom.
Ø Don't let your child be on a screen for more than two hours a day in total. Help your child to monitor her screen use so that she can develop an awareness of time spent. That way she'll learn to manage screen time as she grows.
Ø Choose programs that have an educational element.
When you are choosing an app for your child, try to make sure it’s relevant to things she is learning at home or at preschool. That way, the app may help to reinforce her learning.