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Tablets and toddlers: How much screen time is right for your child?

Riddle Hospital November 18, 2014 General Wellness

Gone are the days when children were satisfied with learning their colors, shapes, and ABC’s through toys and songs. Now, by the age of two, most children can turn on their parent’s tablet, unlock it, and open an app that will help them learn it. When they’re done, they know how to close out of the app and play a game. Want to play some music? Tablet-friendly toddlers are familiar with where to find that, too.

Although the rise of child-friendly technology in recent years may seem like a natural next step following the popularity of tablets, televisions, and e-readers for adults, too much screen time isn’t always right for young eyes.

“We are all aware that there are many apps are available that offer educationally-based activities but too much screen time can actually interfere with a child’s learning,” says Laurie Maddesi, speech pathologist at the Riddle Hospital Outpatient Pediatric Services.

Maddesi’s stance echoes that of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) who, in 2013, issued a statement that children should be limited to less than two hours of entertainment-based screen time per day and that children under age two shouldn’t be exposed to any screen time at all.

So what exactly constitutes screen time? Devices like Leapfrog’s handheld tablet are targeted to children, which can make them seem like a safer choice. Not so. According to the AAP, any time spent in front of the television, Internet, cell phone, or tablet—regardless of its target audience—constitute active screen time.

“Parents are tempted by the promise that a child will “learn” by using apps but traditional toys and games are a great way to learn and provide fun opportunities to interact with your child,” says Maddesi. “Interaction during play is how children learn to relate to people, recognize emotions and begin to participate in conversations. Research has shown that physical play contributes to a child’s mental and emotional development, which are all opportunities that an app can't provide."

While children using educational apps may grow to be more intelligent in the traditional sense, time spent on a tablet can affect children’s ability to recognize nonverbal cues. In a recent study, researchers found that children who spent time away from technology were able to better recognize social and emotional cues.

Guidelines for screen time usage aren’t meant to eliminate their use. Maddesi reminds parents that it can be a healthy part of development, when coupled with social interaction and time away from devices.

“Although times have changed, screen time has long been a part of children’s development. But just as you wouldn’t let your child watch four straight hours of television programming, you should also limit their screen time on handheld devices,” says Maddesi.

Concerned about your child's development? Riddle Hospital's Outpatient Pediatric Services team offers a variety of pediatric services, including occupational and physical therapy, speech language therapy, and a social skills group. To learn more, call 484.227.3370.