It’s the kind of sensational story that was destined to go viral. In April, London’s Telegraph newspaper reported that a British four-year-old who spends four hours a day on an iPad® has become so “addicted” that her parents send her to therapy.
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The story prompted worldwide shares, tweets and blogs, as serious questions about young children and technology emerged — how much is too much mobile device usage in early childhood?
We asked psychologist Cara Cuddy, PhD, for advice for parents about mobile technology. Here is what she had to say:
What do you tell parents with young children about mobile device use?
“Parents should be very judicious about allowing very young children to use these devices,” says Dr. Cuddy. “Children under the age of five should be building relationships with people, not with things. It’s from their early attachments that they will develop self-control and self-esteem which will be crucial to their functioning later.”
Can kids really become “addicted” to mobile devices?
“I don’t think ‘addicted’ is the right word to use in this case,” says Dr. Cuddy. “However, there’s potential for kids to get lost in the screen time and not be interacting with the world in other ways.”
Because of their interactive nature, mobile devices are engrossing in a way TV isn’t. The games give children what psychologists call variable reinforcement, meaning that the rewards come unpredictably. It’s very powerful, says Dr. Cuddy, and it keeps kids glued to the screen as they try to achieve that next reward.
Aren’t educational apps actually good for my kids?
There is some research to show that there is a learning benefit to be gained through limited use of educational apps during the preschool age, says Dr. Cuddy.
But while apps are being marketed for younger and younger ages — including music apps like Baby Piano, activity apps like BabySitter2Go or mere diversions like bubbles — there’s no evidence to suggest any positive effects during the toddler years.
What should I do if I think my toddler or preschooler is using my mobile device too much?
“You’re going to have to say, ‘No,’ to your kids,” says Dr. Cuddy. “That’s the bottom line in all early childhood behavioral intervention. Your child won’t be happy, but they will get over it.”
Whether to cut them off cold turkey or gradually reduce their screen time depends on the child’s personality and your willingness to endure a few meltdowns.
“They should have a well-balanced early childhood experience,” Dr. Cuddy says. “Devices are fine, but they should be a very limited part of a child’s repertoire of play.”