Most of our kids are taking their first swipe on a device before they take their first steps. But what’s the best age for a child to get their own tablet? Here’s what the experts advise.
The short answer? "Delay as long as possible," says Family Zone cyber expert and leading digital health and wellbeing specialist Dr. Kristy Goodwin. "When you give kids their own device, it's their perception that it's their right - not a privilege - to use it."
But let's take a step back, and consider the reasons why you are even considering giving a child a first tablet.
If you’re looking to distract your child - say, on long car rides or while eating out or maybe in the doctor’s waiting room or when you’re trying to get some housework done or … or … - you’re definitely not alone. And you certainly don’t need to be ashamed to say so.
But wouldn't a family-owned device serve the same purpose?
“Making it a family-owned device means it’s much less likely that the child is going to use it in inappropriate ways or use it excessively," Dr. Kristy notes.
“It also means we can explicitly teach them how to use it, in respectful and responsible ways."
When you give kids their own device, it's their perception that it's their right - not a privilege - to use it.
And then there’s the mounting evidence shows excessive use of screens by preschoolers is linked to poorer language skills. According to one recent study, tablets in particular may be “so powerful and encompassing, that they may not belong in the hands of infants, toddlers or preschoolers” at all.
“I would also strongly emphasize the issue of readiness,” added the lead author of that study, which was published this month in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Not so much ‘screens are bad,’ but ‘screens are not such a good idea right now.’ Akin to driving a car is not bad, but driving at age 3-5 not such a good idea.”
Not every expert would agree with that analogy. But virtually all advise that children in this age group who are permitted screen-time on a tablet need to be supervised closely. Parental controls are a must, they say. But so are parents who are willing to do the controlling - to think ahead and set clear boundaries before handing their child their own device - at any age.
Maybe you’re thinking about the educational advantages that a tablet could give your child. If so, it’s important to do your research when it comes to selecting apps and games.
Nearly every app ever developed for pre-schoolers claims to be “educational.” But many are anything but, offering engaging but empty experiences that can hook a child’s attention without delivering any benefit to developing minds.
The issue of cognitive development is another key consideration. “Basically young kids can’t extrapolate meaning from a 2-D screen until they’re somewhere between 18 and 36 months," notes Dr. Kristy. "Yes, they might sit and watch a screen, but they’re not actually making meaning from it.
“So giving a child a tablet before three is unlikely to yield educational benefits - especially as compared to playing with real objects or real people.
Guidelines for choosing high-quality content, from Zero to Three, a nonprofit research and training organisation for early childhood development
Today’s parents are aware that their kids will be growing up into an increasingly technological world. Many are motivated to get them started with devices early in order to develop the tech-savviness they’ll undoubtedly need in later life.
But experts are skeptical. They point out that it’s virtually impossible for today’s children to “fall behind” no matter how delayed their introduction to screens may be.
Modern devices are so pervasive and intuitive that even babies quickly work out how to navigate them.
Real learning readiness, to master technology or anything else, depends on kids' real-life experiences.
“What we know for certain is that in the early years, children need sensory stimulation, and they need ping-pong interaction with real people, they need physical play, they need physical exercise," notes Dr. Kristy. "They’re the fundamentals. And if we prematurely dunk them in this digital stream, it can displace those opportunities."
What we know for certain is that in the early years, children need sensory stimulation, and they need ping-pong interaction with real people, they need physical play, they need physical exercise. They’re the fundamentals.
Family needs and values
You’ve probably noticed that none of this good advice mentions a specific recommended age for a first tablet. And that’s because every child, and every family context, is unique.
“It’s really hard to specify an exact chronological age when kids are ready to have their first tablet because kids all have different maturation rates, they all have different needs and experiences, and they usually respond to technology in different ways," says Dr. Kristy, a child development specialist and mother of three.
Special needs kids, for example, may benefit hugely from specialised software. Families that do a lot of long-haul travel - maybe taking older kids to school in a distant suburb - might find 20 minutes of toddler tablet time makes everybody’s life easier.
But again, Dr. Kristy recommends defaulting to a family-owned device for as long as possible.
OK, but in general what IS the best age?
“I’m really cautious about prescribing a specific age. But I would say I don’t believe preschoolers or toddlers need their own tablet."
The upper primary years are a much more appropriate time for tablet ownership, she advises.
But even at that point, parents need to "make it as clear as possible what the boundaries are, because children of this age simply lack the brain architecture that would enable them to self-regulate their use.”
A new report suggests many mums and dads are sending their kids mixed messages.