When Sarah Caron went to her daughter Paige's preschool's open house, she expected to see Play-Doh, building blocks, and dolls. But iPads? Although she was surprised to find the tablet was part of the school's curriculum, she knew that her daughter wouldn't have trouble using one. At home, Paige had already mastered her dad's iPad. "She quickly learned how to open apps, turn pages in books, and even navigate her way to the Dr. Seuss stories in the App Store, which she would try to convince my husband to download for her," says Caron, of Newtown, Connecticut.
These days, parents have more to monitor than just TV-watching; a recent study found that 27 percent of all screen time for kids 8 and younger is spent with digital media. Whether in school or at home, preschoolers are surrounded by new forms of technology -- and they're getting hooked. But we all know too much screen time can be unhealthy. It's been linked to obesity and sleep problems, and the more your child logs on, the less time he'll have for unstructured play, which is critical for building creativity and problem-solving skills. Here's how to introduce technology without turning him into a pint-size couch potato.
Supervise His Surfing
Experts agree that the best way to teach your child about how to use technology is to log on with him. "Just as you sit down with your child to read a story or make a craft, be present when your child is using your gadgets," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411. Get involved by asking questions about what's going on in the game; if he's flipping through pages of an e-book on your Kindle, read along with him. You'll not only encourage him to learn more, but your involvement can help avoid mindless clicking trances and make him think about what's happening on the screen.
Of course, there will be times when you can't be over his shoulder. To make sure your child doesn't open an app that his older brother downloaded or click to an in-appropriate YouTube video, set up security locking features on all of your devices, which will allow your kid to enter only child-friendly apps and sites.
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.
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.