Toddlers and Touchscreens - Too Much Too Young? October 29 2013

‘One in three kids can use a mobile phone before they can talk’ – this headline makes me twitch. A recent survey commissioned by U.S. pressure group Common Sense Media & electronic toy manufacturer Vtech, says that 38% of 2 year olds have used gadgets like iPhones or tablets for playing games or watching films. This figure has nearly quadrupled in 2 years! That is a massive and rapid jump in toddler (yes TODDLER) usage of touchscreen devices. Why am I even using the word ‘toddler’ in the same sentence as ‘touchscreen devices’?!

It’s got me twitching not just because as a practicing speech and language therapist I frequently see the end result of very young children having way too much screen time – delayed attention, talking and understanding skills.

But as a mum of 2 young boys I also know how it’s potentially a very slippery slope once your toddler does get hold of your iPhone or tablet. We’re all busy, we’re all feeling the pinch, we all need another 3 hours in the day to get everything done.

Let’s face it, the touch screen is the ‘evil genius’ of today’s kid’s entertainment. So simple to use, young children naturally use touch to explore and learn about the world around them. The ‘finger swipe’, it would seem, is an easily mastered motor skill in toddlers – although I’ve not asked my physiotherapy or occupational therapy colleagues about this. I bet someone’s looked into this modern phenomenon? In the meantime, take a look at this now infamous clip of a baby mistaking a magazine for a broken ipad?!

It offers instant gratification in the form of bright, colourful shapes and enticing sounds. Very useful when you need to get the dinner cooked or the washing done. Little ones learn to navigate around a range of icons to select the desired app and play the game without any need for adult help.

This report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that in 2009, almost half (47%) of the top selling apps targeted preschool or Reception aged children.

By 2012 that number had increased to almost three quarters (72%). It also found that apps for toddlers and preschoolers are the most popular age category (58%) in educational apps, and has experienced the greatest growth (23%) in recent years.

So it’s no wonder that another study by Common Sense Media found that in America more than a quarter of all parents have downloaded apps for their children to use. Parents want the best for their child – and the market is telling them (rather ferociously) that apps are a great way to do this.

The current 2013 survey looked into screen time as a whole and stated that children aged two to four average two hours a day of screen time which includes watching TV, playing on the computer and using mobile devices.

My advice to families when it comes to screen time is to take a look at the National Literacy Trusts’ 2004 review of the research into the effect of TV watching on young children’s language development and their useful handout 'Making The Most Out Of Television' which advises that parents should limit TV (and other screen time) to no more than half an hour for under-twos and an hour for three to five-year olds.

The current advice from the American Academy of Paediatrics is that under 2s should have no screen time at all. I think it’s worth saying here that we need more in-depth and longitudinal studies into the effect of screen time on children’s language development, there are lots of differing opinions out there.

However, I think most parents would agree that it sounds like common sense to limit screen time for our toddlers and research like this sometimes acts as a useful reminder.

After all – you are the most interesting toy in the house for your child – it all just depends on how long your batteries last!