The Pros and Cons of letting your toddler use a tablet

Are tablets good or bad for your tiny children? We investigate the pros and the cons based on science.

Do you feel guilty about giving your toddler a tablet so that you can have a few moments of quiet while he’s entertained by the flashy screen? If you don’t have kids yourself, do you feel weird when your siblings or friends do it?

Just a few years ago, I would growl to myself whenever I’d see my sister hand her two-year-old her tablet. I’d think that it was a kind of cop-out for parenting. When she’d do it, it said to me that she just didn’t feel like being a parent right then, so she was letting the tablet be a parent for her.

Of course, there is nothing new about what my sister did; it existed long before tablets did. And those feelings regarding tablets and toddlers are in the growing minority. In fact, my feelings on the matter have changed as well.

In a recent Harris Poll, 59% of parents studied said that they have zero issue with parents giving toddlers tablets as a distraction tool.

This shouldn’t surprise you. It’s easy, and -dare I say- lazy. I can’t fault parents for taking the easy route some of the time. It’s a lot of hard work raising children and parents don’t have an infinite amount of energy. But I do have concerns about how much time children spend on a tablet and so do the parents from that same survey. 58% are concerned that children spend too much time in front of touch screens.

This poll is far from scientific, and with only about 1000 people studied on an online poll, any statistician would likely toss out the results unless there was some other common factor or limitation. What does science say about giving your toddler a tablet? What are the pros and cons?

My parents, who were born in the late '50s, were subject to the scrutiny for the television. People would proclaim that it was evil and made people stupid.

When I was growing up, it was video games. They caused violence and made people evil. Today, that concern seems to be about tablets and other portable entertainment devices. And instead of just spouting off what I think, we should turn to actual research on the subject.

Do tablets affect reading abilities and literacy?

Concerned parents often point to tablets as possibly decreasing the numbers of children who actively read. Of course, in school, children will read because they are forced to, but what about reading for fun? That would be a great study about the actual reading habits of children.

Luckily Scholastic performed such a study, and it’s dated back far enough so that we can get an accurate indication of where it might go when today’s toddlers are in the age range of those studied.

The study monitored children in the US within the average reading age of 6 up to about the time they leave high school at age 17. And the results were significant in that the results weren’t significant. In 2010 -- the same year the first iPad released -- 37% of the children studied read nearly every day for fun, and 42% read for fun at least one day a week. Last year, 31% read nearly every day, and 42% read one or more days a week. That clearly indicates that reading has been affected by something, possibly tablet usage. Were that true, then we would see a similar drop in other similar countries; but, in a similar study in the UK, we saw the opposite effect. In 2010, 29% read outside of school, but in 2014, 41% did.

Conclusion: there is no evidence of tablets affecting the child’s desire to read nor how skilled they are at reading.

Do tablets affect social development?

On the flip side, we should look at the social impact that tablets have on children, especially those early development years.

Unfortunately, there is just not enough information yet to draw any significant conclusion on the effect of tablets on social development, but here is what some studies and experts say.

A 2012 study in Britain concluded that television made a minor contribution to the social behavior of children under seven, but when you add video games into that mix there wasn’t enough evidence to draw any conclusion at all. But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t concerned.

In a New York Times interview, Professor Sherry Turkle from MIT and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other expressed her concerns in 2013:

“Conversations with each other are the way children learn to have conversations with themselves, and learn how to be alone. Learning about solitude and being alone is the bedrock of early development, and you don’t want your kids to miss out on that because you’re pacifying them with a device.”

"If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.”

Her primary concern after interviewing hundreds of parents, teenagers, and children about the use of these kinds of gadgets is that they don’t allow us to develop independent thinking.

Turkle is concerned that the tablets will give the child a false sense of intimacy:

“They need to be able to explore their imagination. To be able to gather themselves and know who they are. So someday they can form a relationship with another person without a panic of being alone. If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.”

And Dr. Carolyn Jaynes, a learning designer from the award-winning Leapfrog Enterprises agrees with this assessment. She spoke to PBS:

“Children under two years of age learn best from real-world experiences and interactions, and each minute spent in front of a screen-based device is a minute when your child is not exploring the world and using their senses, which is extremely important in their development process.”

It appears, as with anything in life, moderation is key. It’s not going to damage a child’s educational development to sit her in front of a shiny touch screen every once in a while, but you also don’t what that tablet to be her connection to the world. I’d say you want that particular connection to be you, the parent.

Published Sep. 16th 2015
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