Your child’s use of smartphones and tablets

The environment we live in is now saturated with a variety of traditional and new technologies. Children nowadays are exposed to interactive media from a very young age, which can have both positive and negative effects. The American Academy of Paediatrics has recently shifted its recommendations of keeping children under 2 away from screen media. Instead, it now provides evidence-based guidance on digital media use for infants, toddlers and young children.

When is a good age to introduce smartphones and tablets to my children?

Consider the 3Cs when choosing children’s media: content, context and child. Moreover, aim for shared media moments with your child and help them translate what they learn to the three-dimensional world we live in.

For children younger than 2 years old:

  • Parents should focus on “family media use” and high-quality programmes
  • The use of Skype or FaceTime video chatting with distant relatives has also shown to be beneficial to young children

For children 2 to 5 years old:

  • Limit screen time to one hour per day with high quality programmes
  • Make media moments an active experience by encouraging children to sing and dance along with the programme
  • Emerging evidence shows that children from 24 months can learn words from live video chatting with a responsive adult or from an interactive touchscreen

Avoid solo use of media at this age group (5 years and below). Avoid fast-paced programmes or apps with distracting or violent content.

What are the main negative effects from letting my child use a smartphone or tablet?

Heavy media use during preschool years is associated with a small but significant increase in BMI (body mass index). BMI increases for every hour per week of media exposure. This may be due to exposure to food advertisements and watching TV while feeding, which diminishes attention to satiety cues.

Increased duration of screen time and presence of mobile devices in the bedrooms are associated with fewer minutes of sleep per night, even in infancy. Infants exposed to screen media in the evening show shorter night time sleep duration. This may be due to the arousing content or the suppression of endogenous melatonin by blue light emitted from screens.

The associations between excessive television and media viewing in early childhood and cognitive, language and social or emotional delays have been well publicised. Heavy usage of mobile devices results in fewer verbal and non-verbal interactions between parents and children. This affects parent-child interactions, and may also give rise to increased parent-child conflict at a later stage. Violent content in media can also contribute to behavioural problems.

What alternative methods are encouraged to engage my children?

Hands-on exploration and social interactions are vital to the development of children under the age of 2 years old. Higher order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success such as task persistence, impulse control, emotional regulation and creative, flexible thinking are best cultivated through unstructured and social play. Good old-fashioned play remains one of the best ways for children to build such foundations. Structured play has rules or a specific way of doing things, such as card or board games. Unstructured play refers to activities that can be carried out at home daily, including but not limited to:

  • Playing on the floor
  • Block building
  • Colouring a picture or enjoying a puzzle
  • Reading a book
  • Building a fort with blankets
  • Helping out in the kitchen or baking cookies
  • Dancing and singing
  • Pretend play or dress-up play
  • Outdoor activities such as walking, climbing and riding tricycles

Interact with your child and enjoy your time together. Most importantly, give your child the focus and attention. Parents should create unplugged spaces and times at home. Set ground rules from the start. Turn off TVs and other devices when not in use. Designate media-free times together such as during dinner or car journeys, as well as media-free locations in the house like the bedrooms. Be a role model and don’t overindulge in the media landscape, especially when at home with your children. Remember the importance of incorporating sleep, exercise, play, reading aloud and social interactions in the early years.