Managing iPad screen time with a toddler

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I finally broke down and bought an iPad. I figured I could read magazines more easily in bed, take it with me on trips, more easily indulge in my love of Googling. The first two apps we downloaded? Monkey Preschool Lunchbox and Fun for Toddlers.

The first few days we had the iPad in the house, my son was using it more than I was. Its arrival coincided with my son’s latest nasty cold and intense fussiness, hence the two toddler apps. It was a magical immediate distraction and bought me a solid half hour of not having to hold a heavy baby on my hip. (Of course, my husband was doing most of the screen-touching at first, but the boy seemed to catch on as the room filled with ridiculous computerized sounds of farm animals awakened with each touch.)

Two of my friends, both moms of 3-year-olds, had been singing the iPad’s praises, telling me how now the kids don’t need any help and can easily navigate through the touch-screen for shows on Netflix and games. I’m sure my husband looks forward to that.

I first discovered the magic of touch-screen mobile gaming on our flight out to California a few months ago. I assumed 1-year-old was too young for gaming, but a very kind and patient soul sitting next to us had Monkey Preschool Lunchbox on her iPhone and deftly took control of my come-apart situation. Silas was completely enthralled, even though this lovely woman (clearly a mother herself) was doing all the iPhone touching. He even fell asleep as the monkey danced and cheered. God bless this woman. I downloaded the app the second I got a wifi signal.

I’m clearly not an anti-screen parent. I realize as my son gets older we will have to discuss television time and limits, but I’m not TV-averse. We don’t have cable, and usually lean toward public television shows. I actually look forward to Sesame Street days (as does my husband — he has recorded the entire last season which purportedly focused on science and experiments). And from what we’ve read, it’s less about the fact that they’re plunked in front of a screen as it is that it’s time parents aren’t engaging with their kids. But do I really need to be in my kid’s face every waking hour, talking, singing, playing? Surely we could all use a short veg-out break from time to time?

Something about the interactivity of the iPad seems even more innocuous and perhaps even beneficial, compared with television. (As I write this, I realize the iPad will also be a medium for viewing shows and movies, so perhaps in that way the same rules apply.)

But in my crowd-sourced research into whether to buy the iPad, one friend warned of a kid he knew whose nose is constantly glued to the screen. Game or show, it didn’t matter. His eyes rarely wandered, allowing him to be fully antisocial.  So surely we need to talk limits.

That said, another friend of mine – one of the moms of a 3-year-old – doesn’t set as strict of limits on the gaming as she does on the show-watching on the iPad. She did however, note that it’s important to be interacting with them as they are playing, rather than using it as a babysitter.

“Which is a goal, not a reality,” she added.

I can appreciate that. You do your best, keep the ideal in mind but be reasonable.

The only hardcore rule?

When parents say it’s time to turn it off, it gets turned off immediately. No bending. That way, it’s up the parents and the events of the day to determine the limits of the screen time, and nips the inevitable struggle of shutting down.

I also turned to the Internet for advice, and it seems that the research into the effects of screen time on young children is scarce. One item I did particularly like was a column on Slate by Lisa Guernsey, adapted from her book Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child.

Remind me to read that.

She offered her own approach to screen time to ensure her kid gets the most out of the learning experience: content, context and your child. Be picky about what your child is watching, seeking out those that put young children in control; be aware of what’s happening before, during, and after the game or show; and choose games your child in particular will enjoy.  She also referenced Common Sense Media’s site that rates apps for learning potential.

Remind me to bookmark that and refer to it as my kid gets older.

Guernsey was also one of a few guests on a recent Diane Rehm show on the topic. Seriously, listen to this episode if you have an iota of interest in this topic. The guests were insightful, including a reporter who started looking into it after he noticed the insane obsession and possessiveness his kid adopted when the iPad was around.

A major point that stuck with me is the idea that we should model behaviors for our kids when it comes to screen media (and pretty much every other behavior ever). We don’t want our kid glued to a screen at the dinner table or to start playing mid-conversation. So we shouldn’t allow ourselves to do the same. This one will be tough. My husband and I are both really bad at turning to the smartphone and now iPad without even realizing it. But knowing that more and more our kid will be mimicking our behavior, we need to put ourselves in check. And ideally, we can then focus less on limits and more on what’s appropriate for screen time.

Best Apps for Toddlers

I might not have all the answers when it comes to the amount and content of screen time for my toddler, but the Internet sure was helpful with plenty of Best-Of lists of apps. Since I can’t vouch for the greatness of them, here are a few solid lists I found:

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