Media-Minded: How to Introduce Technology to Young Kids

More Ways Monitor Your Preschooler's Media Use

Choose Smart Options

When picking fun games and apps for your preschooler, look for ones that are age-appropriate and educational. Think about what your child is learning offline -- such as counting, hand-eye coordination, matching, and writing her letters -- and find apps that work on these same skills. Sites such as commonsensemedia.org and childrenstech.com have expert-approved options for games, apps, and websites. "These days, tech-driven learning can be as beneficial as traditional methods as long as you choose well-designed digital content," says Shira Lee Katz, director of digital media at Common Sense Media. It can be perfectly fine to read a quality story on your iPad to your child at bedtime instead of her usual hardcover books. But remember that even the best programs can't replace certain skills. For example, if your child learns her letters with an ABCs game, it's also important to spend time showing her how to print them on paper so that she gains the handwriting practice she'll need when she starts school.

Set Limits

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids over 2 should have no more than two hours of daily screen time, and you should include everything from TV to tablets in that time limit. But tearing your child away from a video on your iPod is easier said than done. Preschoolers aren't good with transitions to begin with. Add in the fact that media can be habit-forming (how many times have you clicked to Facebook just to scroll aimlessly through a high-school pal's pics?) and you'll probably find that your kid doesn't want to end his tech time.

Make sure you're not using your smartphone as an easy way to keep your child quiet in line at the store, in the car, or in other situations where you need a quick distraction, or else he'll come to expect the screen time and struggle when he doesn't get it. When you do allow him to use it, make it easier for him to log off or shut down by setting a timer to ping a warning when five minutes are left, and add a verbal reminder too. And let your child use tech gadgets prior to another activity he enjoys -- for instance, before playtime with Dad but not before brushing teeth. He will be more likely to hand over the tablet if he knows he has something fun to switch over to. If all else fails, tuck the device away in a drawer; it's easier to keep your iPad out of sight and out of mind than it is to hide your TV.

And don't forget to lead by example. Is your BlackBerry glued to your hand 24/7? In a clear case of monkey see, monkey do, kids will follow your lead on tech habits, says Joshua Sparrow, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "If you have that relationship with your smartphone, you're inadvertently showing that it has a big place in your life. That's not the way you want to introduce your child to technology."

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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