Given that these devices can serve an educational purpose, it’s tempting to let kids play with them as long as they want. Resisting that temptation can be hard, especially in the face of crying, begging, and tantrums.
“We’re used to growing up in a time when our parents set limits on how much TV we could watch, or when we could watch,” said PBS Kids’ DeWitt. “All these other devices getting thrown into the mix means that parents now have a lot more to navigate.” Just as with television, video games, and the Internet, parents have to set boundaries with mobile devices if they want the benefits to outweigh the drawbacks.
PBS Kids advises parents to put their kids on a balanced media diet, and Dr. Klopfer warns that it is possible for kids to have too much screen time. “Tablet time should not replace block time or playing in the dirt time. But it would be okay if it replaced TV time.”
Common Sense Media Parenting Editor Caroline Knorr also advocates balance in activities. “It’s really important that parents make sure their kids are getting sensory experiences, physical activity, and social interaction because we know from childhood development experts that these elements are key to healthy growth.”
Lyss Stern of the blog Divalyssious Moms puts limits on the amount of screen and game time her sons get each week and ensures that she knows what games they’re playing and what media they’re consuming. “Parents have to be very cognizant and make sure that they know what their children are doing and how much time they’re spending with these devices and apps.”
All of the parents and experts we spoke to insisted that this balance is critical. “Anything in moderation is okay,” said Lyss Stern. How much or how little time kids get with the devices depends on the individual and their environment. Parents have to know their child’s habits and tendencies and be tuned into their educational and entertainment needs.
Beyond the vague bugaboo of mobile devices being “bad” for kids, there are concrete concerns to address. Marla Rosner of the Beyond Netiquette blog warns that allowing children access to Internet-connected devices too early can lead to a slippery slope. “Starting in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, children start to access the Internet. If a child has already become accustomed to using mobile devices when they are very young, it’s tough to pull it away when they become pre-adolescents.” Rosner particularly worries about the exchanges older kids have via the Internet, especially if they’re heavily involved in social media. “If the device is mobile, parents can quickly lose [the already difficult] ability to supervise what kids are accessing.”
Even activities that seem safe on the surface can cause big problems. Recently, Stephanie Kay, a mother who lives in Maryland, discovered that her eight-year-old had racked up $1,400 in charges playing Smurfs’ Village. In-app purchases are a major revenue source for game makers, so there are plenty of chances for this kind of thing to happen again. Complaints from Kay and several other parents with similar stories prompted Apple to require passwords for in-app purchases, but of course that only applies to iOS devices.
The best solution to this modern problem is an old-fashioned one: monitoring your child’s usage, setting explicit boundaries, and checking in to make sure they’re adhering to them.
But monitoring should be about more than just policing your child. Parent-child interaction is a big part of the development philosophy for PBS Kids’ future apps. Based on feedback, the organization has found that parents love the extra opportunity to start conversations with their children which these devices provide.
Elena Murphy discovered that using the iPhone and iPad with her kids offered a surprising amount of engagement and bonding. “I really like being able to talk to them about different topics and then show related content. We sing songs every night at bedtime and I routinely look up lyrics I don’t know. We’ve learned a lot of Beatles songs together that way.”
When we posed this question directly, most of the experts we spoke to wouldn’t put a hard age limit on mobile device usage because only a parent can truly gauge when his or her child is ready. At the same time, there’s no need to rush into introducing a young child to these devices—even if you’re just hoping to prepare them for the digital future. “Technology is now part of the fabric of kids’ lives,” said Common Sense Media’s Knorr. “They will learn it and master it just by the nature of today’s world.”
But if you need a reasonable threshold, Knorr has a simple guide: “If your kid immediately puts your iPhone or iPad in their mouth, they’re probably too young to use it!”