Is it wrong for me to give my three-year-old my tablet or smartphone to use unsupervised?

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Q: I recently read the New York Times article discussing young children using high tech devices unsupervised before they turn 4. Admittedly, I give my three-year-old daughter my iPad to play with on long car trips and I’ll occasionally hand her my smartphone while in line at the grocery store (she usually melts down otherwise). I always set up the app or TV show for her before I hand her the device, but I am now wondering if this practice is bad for her. Should I only give her a device when I can sit with her and monitor exactly how she uses it?

~ Device Denial, San Francisco, CA

A: Dear Device,

Because we are only now starting to learn about how children are affected by the screen media they use and how they use them, only time will teach us how what they do at age 3 influences who they become at age 13 or 23. What we do know is that the best way for children to use these devices is directly with a parent or other caregiver.

Using a smartphone, tablet, or even watching TV together allows you to observe your daughter’s immediate response to and use of the screen, while also creating a shared experience. This kind of joint media engagement (JME) provides a richer and healthier experience for the child both in terms of her social-emotional development and for her learning.

Handing a young child a screen to pacify her is problematic, both because it appears to reward her for the behavior you are attempting to pacify and because of what her screen time displaces:

  • It takes away from the rich, human interaction of conversation: Instead of using the time in the grocery line to talk and interact with your daughter, she will focus her attention on the screen, missing out on what could be valuable vocabulary building, social-emotional development, and bonding with you.
  • It avoids her need to develop and practice self-calming behaviors: Instead of learning how to use her thoughts and imagination to regulate her emotions, your daughter is learning that her boredom can be eliminated through the instant gratification she obtains through the screen.
  • It distracts her from observing and experiencing her world: Your daughter is at critical stage of development where she is continually taking in the environment around her in order to learn what the world is like and how to behave in it. By focusing on a screen, she is denied the opportunity to observe and interact with her environment, and bring her own creativity and imagination to what she experiences.

Remember we did not have the iPad until 5 years ago and children survived just fine, so there are plenty of alternative activities that don’t involve a screen. Talk to your daughter on long car rides, play games that help her identify colors, or even help her read, such as looking at the headlines of magazines while in line at the grocery store. Engage her imagination, see the world through her fresh, infinitely creative eyes, and discover the wonder of what is going on within this very special and unique human being.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~ The Mediatrician®