Parenting SA

Many parents are unsure whether they should encourage the use of touch screens such as mobile phones and tablets with toddlers and young children. Are touch screens just a quick and easy distraction for children? There are many apps and programs that are promoted as educational for this age group, but are they really? Are there any risks in introducing screen technology too early?

On behalf of Parenting SA, Dr Justin Coulson, nationally recognised parenting speaker, author and researcher, discusses the pros and cons of the digital age for children 0 to 5 years. He outlines the recommendations for screen use in this age group and gives parents and carers tips on how to manage electronic media use, including how and when to introduce phones, tablets, apps and e-games, and how to set limits.

More information about toddlers and touchscreens can be found at Parenting SA.

The Parenting SA website also has many other topics for parents of children aged 0 to 18 years.


Hi, I'm Dr Justin Coulson, parenting author, researcher and speaker, and in this video we are talking: 'toddlers and touch screens'.

Most experts would agree that we are in the midst of a screen tsunami, and our toddlers and pre-schoolers, in fact all of our children and many of us, are being swept up by it. In this video I want to focus on our under 5s and their use of screens.

We all know how quickly our children 'get' screens, they understand swiping and scrolling, and they just love being on their devices. And those devices can be pretty convenient for us as well. I mean, we hand them over to the kids, and it's bliss. They become so quiet, so easy to deal with. Researchers from around the world, though, are clear on one thing: infants and touch screens should not mix. And toddlers and pre-schoolers should have their access minimised. In fact, guidelines from the American Paediatric Association and the American Psychological Association recommend zero screen time. I'm talking 'zilch', 'nada', 'zip', 'none' for kids under two, and preferably no more than about half an hour a day for under 5s, maybe up to an hour. Why? Well, there's a bunch of 'cons' to screen time use and there aren't actually very many 'pros', especially for young children.

Here's a list of cons for you. OK, first up: screens don't really have much educational benefit, especially compared with real face-to-face contact with parents and other caregivers. Secondly, screens are being shown to slow down social and emotional development. Kids need to actually look at real faces that interact and that respond to them in real time. Third: screen time is actually associated with poorer physical health, so kids move less and they eat more. And they eat more poorly as well when they are in front of screens. Their motor development can be affected if they are lying on the lounge like a lizard, with a screen in front of their face all day. Plus, there's the impact on their eyesight. Screens are also associated with poorer sleep habits. Screens interrupt play, which (you've probably heard this saying) is 'the work of childhood'. Screens are shown to impact on curiosity and creativity in negative ways. And you've probably experienced this: screens create tantrums and behavioural issues. They also affect memory and learning, and they can literally rewire how children's brain are responsive to rewards and social situations, in ways that some experts would warn may not be good for optimal development.

So, that's the arguments 'against' screens. The arguments 'for' screens in children under 5 are- There are some who argue that social skills can be taught and that there's some educational advantage. There's also some who'll argue that some 'zone-out' stress relief time is what screens are good for, and that it can actually help with some fine motor skill development. Now, some of this may be true but kids can get all of that in much higher doses away from screens. There's also the argument that children may get left behind if they are not on screens soon enough. But most children seem to pick up how to do things pretty quickly, regardless of how or when we introduce those screens to them. It's OK to let them wait. So the very best advice still seems to say: keep little ones under 2 off screens entirely, even the TV, and minimise access for your under 5s.

Here are a couple of strategies that I think might be helpful to set good screen time limits for your children. First: Be a good example of good screen time use, on your own. If your children see you constantly reaching for a screen so that you can occupy yourself, they are going to learn that this is how we cope with every spare 60 seconds that we have. Second: We've got to set appropriate limits with our child. Use the oven timer to keep to time or use the iPad countdown function. Make sure that there are time limits. Third: Don't offer the device as a reward. What it does - it makes them just want the device more, and want whatever they had to do to earn the device, less. Fourth: Give them appropriate time and attention and activities away from screens. They want you more than they want screen time, so be available to them. Fifth: Make sure they get plenty of active time - playing, being outside, reading, being creative. Get them involved socially as well. The more balanced their lives, the less that screens will be problematic.

Screens are pretty awesome, when we use them in healthy ways and at the right times. So, try these tips to help your children to grow up with a good understanding of how to balance screens with other things in life that are important.


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Last published: 07 Aug 2020 4:02pm

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