This is a problem for all new-age parents, now more than ever, since almost all households have multiple smart devices like smartphones and tablets. While this wasn’t too much of a problem back in the day, when we were kids, since the only screen in the house was a small TV, today’s kids are constantly interacting with touchscreens and computers, but how much is too much? Many parents are asking if these devices are safe for kids to play with and researchers are having trouble keeping up with the rapid advancement of technology.

While some questions are easily answered, the underlying effects of the use of smartphones and tablets by children are not well understood. Parents who are more tech-savvy and have adopted modern technology in their lives are more open to the idea of leaving a child play on a tablet compared to others which adopt a more conservative approach. But who is right? Is it a good or a bad idea to let your kids play with smartphones or tablets?

let kids play with smartphones and tablets

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Understanding the risks – A short Q&A

More and more researchers have tried to shed some light on the matter, performing studies and gathering information on how parents use technology in the development of their kids. Thanks to their interest in the matter, some questions have been answered, but a lot more research is needed to definitely settle the dispute.

1. At what age should children be allowed to use tablets and smartphones?

The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 should not be allowed at all to interact with tablets, smartphones or other media such as computers or TV. This statement has been backed up by multiple pediatricians all over the world and the reason is that toddlers are encouraged at that age to explore their environment and learn how the world works. Splashing water and interacting with their parents are ways that help their brain learn how to better function.

Another point is that in this stage of their life, their bodies are developing and moving, crawling and walking will help them strengthen their muscles. Sitting idly in front of a screen will only encourage a sedentary lifestyle which can lead to health problems in the future. Furthermore, common sense will tell us that kids under the age of 2 will not be interested in these devices, as they would probably try to suck on them rather than use them.

2. Are tablets and smartphones valid learning devices?

should kids play with tablets and smartphones

They can be, but after a certain age. For kids 3 and above, these devices can be used as educational toys, but only under the supervision of adults. As you may remember, we’ve talked a bit about some iOS apps for kids, as well as Android apps that parents can use as educational tools. Many educational toys such as coloring books, flash cards and others that were used in the past, are now available in digital versions, and they can be used by parents. It is important to mention that kids should not be left alone to play with smartphones or tablets, but be under constant supervision from their parents.

In an article named “Physical activity and sedentary behavior during the early years in Canada: a cross-sectional study“, specialists recommends that children between the ages of 3 and 4 can have up to 1 hour of screen time per day, whilst children over the age of 5 can have up to 2 hours of daily use. Parents who keep to these guidelines are encouraged to keep their kids active and to interact with them as much as possible. At this age, children should be allowed to play and move as much as possible in order to avoid a sedentary lifestyle.

3. Is there a chance for long-lasting effects in children due to overexposure to mobile devices?

Some scientists think so. The effects mobile devices have on children range from psychological to physical. Early development is crucial to children, and being allowed to spend too much time in front of a tablet’s screen can be detrimental to them.

Ms Marzoli from the Learning and Therapy Corner in Maryland warns about muscle weakness in children if they do not use their fingers to scribble on paper, but only swipe a screen every day:

If they are always on the iPad and not actually doing those paper and pencil activities that they should still be doing, those muscles are going to remain weaker. What we’re seeing is a lot of children coming in with some motor delays, some decreased muscle strength in areas.

Dr. Gary Small, a UCLA neuro-scientist also disagrees with children using mobile devices more than they need to, as this will not help them learn facial expressions or the language skills that they will need later on:

These young kids need to be developing language skills and learning to recognize a facial expression, and not scanning the Internet

As you can see, these devices can become a health hazard for children, but only if they are not properly used. Allowing children to play on these devices can become a good learning experience, but it should be done in parallel with traditional means.

4. Apart from the health problems, what other problems are there?

Letting kids play with expensive hardware which holds important information about yourself isn’t the best of ideas. There are lots of voices stating that children are responsible for many unwanted in-app purchases, or even the purchase of goods by children. In responds, these problems have been addressed to some extent by software developers which prohibit purchases from mobile devices by requiring a password.

Another thing to consider is the fact that kids aren’t as careful as adults with mobile devices, throwing them around and damaging tablets and smartphones is not unheard of. Even with tablets especially designed for kids, which as stronger built, more resistant and cheaper, without supervision, this happens quite often.

It’s safe to say that almost all of out mobile devices have Internet access, and this leads to another risk that children are subjected to: Internet browsing. Sometimes, children unwillingly tap on ads or other links that might take them to adult websites or other inappropriate content. Parental control software can be the the solution to this problem, but an even better way to go about this problem is to constantly monitor what you kids are doing with the tablet or smartphone.

5. What are we to make of all this?

kids play with tablets and smartphones

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Overall, it’d seem that smartphones and tablets are pretty inappropriate for kids, and they could bring more harm than benefits. However, this is not the case. It’s not a straightforward yes or no answer as I’m sure you know by now. Tablets and smartphones can be used as educational tools, as well as for entertainment purposes. But they shouldn’t be the treated as the most important tool for this. While kids can be amused by them for a while, parents should supervise them when they are using them, and of course, limit their interaction with such devices depending on their age.

Keep in mind that although educational apps help kids understand letters and numbers, they will not help with socializing and communication skills, and it is the job of the parents to help their kids understand and implement these skills. A schedule is the best solution, where you integrate playing on smartphones and tablets, but also writing (with a pen and paper), playing with other kids outside and everything else that helps kids develop properly.

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I often wonder, where is technology heading? What do all of these advances mean for us and for our future? I sometimes miss the days when I didn’t know how to use a floppy disk, or how a computer CPU works, but now, until I find an answer to my questions, I’ll keep tracking these advances and show everything I find to those who share my interests.