Is It Too Soon to Give My Kid a Tablet?

There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to the question, but here are several things to consider before buying your child their own electronic device.

Credit...Nicole Ruggiero

This story was originally published on Nov. 12, 2019 in NYT Parenting.

What age should children have their own smartphone/tablet? I know that after 2, children can start being exposed to more screen time, but does it matter if they have a sense of ownership over a piece of technology as far as their risk to becoming more dependent on it? If she uses my smartphone versus giving her an old one that can be “hers” is that better, worse, or doesn’t matter?

— Michelle Serfass, Washington, D.C.

We were intrigued by Ms. Serfass’s question, and in particular the part about tablets. There has been a proliferation of apps that profess to be educational, and — particularly with the holidays approaching — you may be tempted to buy an electronic device for your child.

But should you?

There’s no simple answer to that question, experts say — in fact, it might be more helpful to ask yourself something else entirely: Why do I want to introduce my child to a tablet, and how is my child going to use it?

Here are a few other things to consider when pondering whether to buy a young child a tablet.

Yes, said every parent ever.

A little distraction can ease the tedium of car trips, air travel and other potentially hairy situations. But continually giving a child an electronic device to alleviate restlessness or boredom can be a slippery slope, experts say. That’s why it’s important to have clear rules about how that device is going to be used.

“Most parents I know who’ve successfully navigated giving their child a tablet without it becoming the child’s constant sidekick have pretty clear boundaries for when and where the tablet comes out,” said Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and a lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on media use among young children.

According to one recent study of 47 children ages 3 to 5, those with higher exposure to screens had poorer expressive language and did worse on tests of language processing speed. About 41 percent of the children had a screen in the bedroom and about 60 percent had their own portable devices.

The results led the lead author of the study to speculate that tablets in particular may be “so powerful and encompassing, that they may not belong in the hands of infants-toddlers-preschoolers.”

The children with higher exposure to screens were the ones whose parents were not enforcing the current American Academy of Pediatrics’ screen time guidelines, which allow for up to an hour of high-quality programming a day on average.

It’s important to note that the study showed an association, not causation. But the findings do seem to suggest that young children may not be ready for their own devices without a good deal of parental supervision, especially because the parental controls built into certain devices are far from perfect.

“I think the parent remains the best parental control,” said David Hill, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and the former chair of the A.A.P.’s Council on Communications and Media. Dr. Hill suggested keeping all screens where you can see them, for example, in the living room or at the kitchen table when you’re cooking dinner, and keeping screens out of bedrooms. “There’s no technology that replaces your own eyes and ears.”

While a lot of apps claim to be educational, they’re not all created equal, Dr. Radesky said.

The app store is the “Wild West,” she added.

There are good apps out there, however, assuming you know where to look.

Eugene Geist, a professor of education at Ohio University and the author of “Children Are Born Mathematicians,” said his son, who is now 11, has used a tablet since he was a toddler. But he was only allowed to use specific types of educational software. For example, his son learned about different types of shapes (and even mastered the term “isosceles triangle”) and enjoyed using Elmo’s Monster Maker, an app created by Sesame Workshop, Dr. Geist said.

“I know that there’s a lot of concern with screen time,” he added. “But I think that we have to be careful not to paint all screens with the same brush.”

Zero to Three, a nonprofit research and training organization for early childhood development in Washington, D.C., created an infographic to help parents choose high-quality screen-based experiences.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2018 toy guide for young children advised parents to choose simple toys over those that are digital-based.

“The best toys are those that support parents and children playing, pretending and interacting together,” Dr. Alan L. Mendelsohn, co-author of the report and an associate professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Population Health at NYU Langone Health, said in a statement last year. “And when children play with parents — the real magic happens, whether they are pretending with toy characters or building blocks or puzzles together.”

If this is your motivation for buying a tablet, rest assured that children who are developing at a typical rate will not fall behind if their exposure to screens is delayed.

Today’s phones and tablets are so intuitive that even babies can quickly figure out how to navigate them.

In fact, a 2009 study of 72 babies who were 15 to 16 months old found they were easily able to learn a game on a touch screen. What is most noteworthy about this study, however, is that the babies were not very successful in translating the skill they learned in the game to an object in the real world.

“It was a really big ask to transfer information across the digital divide,” said Rachel Barr, director of the Georgetown Early Learning Project at Georgetown University and one of the study’s co-authors. In a follow-up study in 2016, the researchers asked the baby’s mother to do the teaching rather than one of the researchers and found that those children were more likely to make the connection between the 2-D world and the 3-D world, especially when the mothers narrated and made connections between the real world and the touch screen to help the children understand what they were seeing.

“It’s much like playing puzzles with a child. The child kind of needs help to figure out how those pieces fit together and needs help to figure out what is a puzzle and how does it work,” Dr. Barr said. “It’s the exact same thing with an app.”

Being tech-savvy is much more than simply knowing how to use a device; it’s about understanding how a device works. Instead of focusing on the technology itself, think about how your child can develop the spatial reasoning and logic skills that are important for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Children as young as preschool age can begin thinking like a computer programmer by using simple coding toys or participating in activities like a blindfolded maze, which can teach them how to create and follow commands — the same concepts used in coding. No computer required.

Content, context and your child represent the so-called three C’s, a concept developed by the early learning expert Lisa Guernsey, a former New York Times reporter who is now the director of the teaching, learning and tech program at the nonprofit New America.

“We need to focus on the content on the screen. The context: how we’re interacting with children around that media, and making sure that they have good interactions when they’re not with the media. And then the child, our children: We understand our kids, we know what’s going to delight them, we know what kinds of questions they might ask from it, we need to just tune in to see what they understand from it,” Ms. Guernsey said in her TEDx talk about how screens affect young children.

And the answers will be different for every family.

Does your child have special needs? A nonverbal child found to have autism spectrum disorder, for example, or a school-age child with dyslexia could benefit greatly from certain types of software.

What is your typical schedule? If you do a lot of traveling by public transportation, it might make sense to load a couple of e-books onto a tablet or show your child 10 minutes’ worth of quality programming while you’re waiting for the bus in cold weather, Dr. Barr suggested.

“How is it that we can provide content that they relate to and context that can support their learning — and time in our day to actually figure that out?” Dr. Barr asked. “Those are the three questions that are pretty hard to answer.”

Try taking this brief quiz to reflect upon the ways in which your family uses digital technology.

Finally, no matter what you decide, it’s worth noting that there isn’t a perfect way (or time) to introduce electronic devices to your child.

“I always encouraged parents to be experimenters,” Dr. Radesky said. “If you introduce a new technology and it doesn’t feel like a good fit then switch it up.”

[I use my phone for everything. Is that harming my kids?]