Author: Alison Fung
with Dr. Guanghai Wang,
Clinical Psychologist and Sleep Specialist
and Lei Jin, Educational Psychologist

Most children these days are growing up surrounded by technology, with parents documenting their baby’s first steps on smartphone cameras from day one and later enjoying temporary respite as they let their toddlers play games on their tablets. According to Common Sense Media, 38% of children under 2 in the US have used a mobile device for media. However, there is growing concern about the effects of technology on young children, since the phenomenon of toddlers spending hours in front of screens is relatively recent and the effects are as yet unknown. So when and how should parents introduce technology to their children?

0-2 Years: No Screens is Best

How much screen time?

AAP recommends no screen time.

The research:

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screens before 18 months and only minimal screen time with adult engagement from 18-24 months. AAP makes an exception for live video chat, as research has found that babies are able to emotionally engage and interact with people on the other side of a video chat, with guidance from an adult sitting beside them.

Up to the age of three, children’s brains are developing quickly and are especially sensitive to their surrounding environment. This stage of early development is called the critical period. Changes that happen in the brain in the first few years of a child’s life become the foundation on which later brain function is built. During this period, children need specific human-to-human stimuli, which cannot be found in technology.

What to do:

  • It might be tempting to put your baby in front of a screen for some grown-up quiet time, but try not to let your baby spend time on screens (except when video chatting relatives). Instead, your baby should be learning about social interactions through free play and spending screen-free time with you.
  • Engage in face-to-face communication. Two-way communication improves language development, considerably more so than one-way interaction with a screen.
  • For children 18 to 24 months, watch digital media with them and discuss with them. Relate the content to their daily life, such as singing the songs when the iPad has gone away or reminding them that the character in the show loves to jump in puddles when out on a rainy day.

2-5 Years: Joint Use and Quality of Media

How much screen time?

AAP recommends 1 hour a day of high-quality programs.

The research:

AAP also highlights that “adult interaction with the child during media use is crucial.” A large body of research finds that children learn more from media “when their caregivers are actively engaged in what is known as joint media engagement.” AAP suggests that parents should “coview with your children, help children understand what they are seeing, and help them apply what they learn to the world around them.”

While parent-child joint reading is known to have significant benefits for children, one study demonstrated that, for children between 2-4 years old, children’s comprehension from traditional paper books was significantly higher than from an iPad. It also found that parents and children produced more story-related comments and questions when reading a story from a book than an iPad. Whatever the medium of joint reading, the bottom line is the importance of social interaction. Jenny Radesky, clinical instructor in developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, encourages parents to increase “direct human to human interaction” with their children.

Another important factor is the content of a specific program or app. Well-designed television programs and apps can “improve cognitive, literacy, and social outcomes for children 3 to 5 years of age” (AAP suggests the show Sesame Street, and apps from Sesame Workshop and the Public Broadcasting Service), but AAP casts doubt on the quality and content of other “educational apps” in app stores: “most apps parents find under the ‘educational’ category in app stores have no such evidence of efficacy, target only rote academic skills, are not based on established curricula, and use little or no input from developmental specialists or educators.”

Apps can help children practice their gross- and fine-motor skills, as well as offer sensory and cognitive stimulation. The American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) recommends using apps for therapeutic goals, as opposed to a source for entertainment. Tablets are being used as tools for children with special needs, and as a means for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices. For instance, the Wall Street Journal praised the iPad as a cheaper alternative to expensive, specialized devices for children with speech and communication problems.

In any case, it is generally agreed that unstructured playtime is more beneficial to a young child’s development than electronic media. Imaginative, uninterrupted play is a process that “fosters emotional health, imagination, original thinking, problem solving, critical thinking, and self-regulation.”

What to do:

  • Avoid passive screen time and solo media use. Make conversation with your child as you use the technology together, so they can learn that it can be a tool for collaboration and to continue practicing social skills.
  • Monitor the media your child is using, and make sure they are age-appropriate. Avoid fast-paced programming, apps with a lot of distracting content, and media with violent content.
  • Just because an app is listed as “educational,” doesn’t mean it is. Check the following organizations and resources, as listed by this article, for reviews and ratings:
  • Assistive technologies can be especially helpful for special needs or developmental delays.
  • Also make time for unplugged family time, without the distraction of television, computers, and mobile devices.


The important thing to remember is not to give your baby or toddler an iPad to pacify them, and to spend quality time interacting with them, which is important for social and developmental growth. Under the age of 18 months, babies should not have any screen time. Social interactions between parent and child are emphasized instead. Above the age of 18 months, high quality age-appropriate media may be introduced to the child, but the parent must always accompany them in viewing or using the media.

For more great tips and research about children’s technology use, check out this blog post from Mom Loves Best.

Read the second article in the series, on developing healthy screen habits for children over 5, and our third article, on how to encourage more offline interactions with teenage children.

If you feel there are deeper issues at hand in the way your children are spending time on their devices, with a serious, negative impact on their mental health, consult an expert. You can contact us at ELG for a consultation with our specialists, Dr. Wang and Lei Jin, who can help you or your child overcome tech addiction.