Tech 101 for Toddlers & Preschoolers

As parents, the information on how much screen time (and what kind of screen time) our kids should have seems endless. It’s challenging to keep up, much less sift through it all and figure out what’s real and current. I’ve taught technology to elementary and middle school students for more than 15 years, and have two kids of my own under the age of 6. These basic guidelines (based on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics) can help you navigate the muddy waters and figure out what’s really ok for your child at different ages.
Good guidelines to follow are:
  • Children under 18 months should avoid any media unless looking at pictures or using video chat.
  • Children 18 – 24 months may watch high quality programming if you watch it with them (and talk about it with them).
  • Children 2 – 5 years may watch 1 hr./day of high-quality, co-viewed programming; at this age, it’s important for parents to help kids understand what they’re seeing and how it relates to the world.
  • Children 6 years and older need enough sleep, physical activity, and face-to-face social interaction first and foremost – it’s essential that these be priorities. According to recent research, once these are accounted for, children are not negatively impacted academically, socially, or mentally by moderate amounts of screentime.
  • A good rule of thumb is no screens half an hour to one hour before bedtime.
So, why are the guidelines the way they are? Children learn the most from direct parent interaction and connections with the real world around them (think of this as your fruits and vegetables). Next, they learn from co-viewing, which includes watching or reading with an adult. They learn the least from using media by themselves (think of this as junk food). You might have a cupcake once in a while, but you wouldn’t have it in place of your meals!
It can also be challenging to figure out which media is high-quality media. The best programs for kids are slower-paced, concrete, and real-world, with pauses for interactivity. PBS Kids has some good options including Sesame Street, Daniel Tiger, Mr. Rogers, Curious George, Doc McStuffins, SuperWhy, Wild Kratts, and Planet Earth.
Parents should be very careful with Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime. Content on these services is not filtered effectively for kids, and inappropriate content is just one click away; young kids should never view/navigate these channels by themselves. For example, on YouTube, videos that get a lot of attention bubble to the top; unfortunately, a video may seem like a cartoon initially, but a few minutes in shift to violent or other inappropriate content.
I’ll leave you with a few practical suggestions for helping your family navigate the technology-driven world that we live in:
  • Ask permission before taking pictures. This seems like a simple thing, but we don’t do it. A sobering statistic is that more than half of all girls will be asked for a nude photo of themselves by the age of 14. Our children need to be comfortable saying “no.”
  • It’s ok to have different rules for different kids. Kids are different from each other – one may need very firm limits, and the other may function well with more flexibility.
  • Treat media time the same as you would reading books – sit together, and choose content that is language-rich and interactive.
  • Re-enact things from a show; repetition and contextualizing things with kids help them process it. Talk with them about what they took away from a show.
  • Eliminate background TV.
  • If a smartphone is in the room, it’s affecting the quality of parent/child interaction; find a place to dump it.
  • Technology doesn’t have to be just screen media. If you have old pieces of technology around your house (keyboards, phones, etc.), use them as “take aparts,” or spend time playing with Snap Circuits or Makey Makey.
  • If you have an iPad for your child, keep one app on it at a time. When they get bored with it, they will naturally turn it off and go onto another activity. Periodically, change that app out for another one. Some good apps for young kids include Puppet Pals and Scratch Jr.
At the end of the day, parent-child engagement is key with media, as it is with anything. Following the practices outlined here will support your child’s development and set the foundation for a healthy relationship with technology in the future.
About the Author:
Steve Trust is Director of Academic Technology at Charles River School, an independent PreK – school in Dover, Mass., and father to a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.


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