As soon as they can click or swipe: Babies and digital technology

Baby on an iPad
Creative Commons license by Tia.
Baby on an iPad
Creative Commons license by Tia.

When my now 15-year-old twin daughters were little, we would pack crayons and paper for them when we went out to restaurants. Remember crayons? I challenge you to spot a kid using crayons next time you visit any family restaurant anywhere. Most of the diaper set will be swiping their ketchup-smeared fingers across touch screens, chewing on their parents’ expensive smartphones, playing engaging games or watching videos on electronic devices. iPads are the new crayons and board books.

Many parents ask me if there anything wrong with this. I have two responses. The first is to remind them of the Canadian Paediatric Society recommendations to avoid screen-based activities for kids under two years old (a position also taken by the American Pediatric Society). Babies and toddlers need to interact with their physical world to develop motor skills, and they need to learn language from face-to-face real time interaction, not clever videos or multimedia apps. My second answer is my “mom” response. I well remember what it was like to have three children under 4 years old and desperately need 10 minutes to get dinner on the table, or distract my active 18-month-old so I could help my twin first-graders with their homework. I know the hell of being stuck in traffic with three whiny kids in the back, or waiting overlong in a restaurant for their kids’ meals.

Full disclosure: even with a doctorate in communications, I occasionally plied my children with screen time to get stuff done: grab a shower, sneak 5 minutes to drink my coffee while it was hot or get a brief uninterrupted conversation with my husband. Our third daughter was certainly exposed to way more screen time than her older sisters. My husband and I were both worn down by then, and frankly outnumbered by our three small kids. We know what it’s like to occasionally barter our best parental intentions for a few minutes of peace. Somehow, we’ve all come through it OK.

Yet our kids were little before all these handheld devices truly took off. These days, I watch parents of young children around me and recognize that the temptation to distract them with the marvellous apps on tablets and smartphones is stronger than ever. And since so many of them as marketed as “educational,” it’s easy to assuage our guilt by thinking it’s good for them. Younger siblings watch their older brothers and sisters swiping and clicking and want more than anything to get their pudgy little hands on those magical tools.

So what are parents of babies and toddlers supposed to do? If you are strong enough to resist the siren call of digital technologies for your really little ones, the research strongly supports you. Surround them with books, balls, empty containers for stacking (and yes, crayons) and watch them thrive. They will not fall behind their peers without a baby sign language app, and there is no digital equivalent to a loving adult for teaching words, shapes, animal sounds or colours.

But if you (for whatever reason) don’t feel capable of keeping those little hands of your devices, I suggest there are two important things you must teach them. The first is to learn the effective use of “no.” It’s critical to teach kids of all ages that there are appropriate times and spaces for using these devices. It’s also important that they learn to respect these expensive devices. It’s one thing to throw carrots off the high chair, or smack a stuffed animal over your brother’s head; it’s quite another to do this with a $500 iPhone. Kids can’t slam them on the table, step on them, manhandle them with wet or sticky fingers. And they must always be taught to respect your decision when you say no.

This is a battle you will fight until the day they move out, so get used to it.

The second important teaching point concerns the amount of time spent online. The dynamic will go something like this: you say it’s enough, they want more. This starts around 6 months old and continues through to adulthood. In fact, I would argue that many adults aren’t terribly good at controlling the amount of time they spend online either. I occasionally look up from my computer to discover it’s long after my bedtime. Imagine how difficult this is for an 18-month old. Or a six-year-old. Or a 15-year-old. Steel yourself for the tears and screams of protest and trust you are doing the right thing.

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