Of toddlers, tablets, apps and naps: thoughts on parenting the touch-screen generation

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, one-third of Americans own tablet computers and over half own smartphones. This means a lot of children have access to these devices — they rest in purses, diaper bags, on the dinner table and desk — often temptingly within reach.

These touch-screen devices are astoundingly practical: filled with direction-givers, dictionaries, cameras to record tender family times, and offer worlds of apps and videos — things that enthrall kids from toddlerhood to teens (and beyond).

With the spread of these touch screens outpacing our understanding of their impact on child development, we are armed with little data to answer parents’ tough questions:

  • When is it appropriate to introduce these devices?
  • How often should they be used and for how long?
  • Which apps may hinder development?
  • Might some apps might promote essential skills? Which ones?
  • How are we to parent what one writer in the Atlantic called “the Touchscreen Generation?”

In the absence of our own histories to draw on — my parents, for example, didn’t exactly have to wrestle the Speak & Spell out of my hand — or robust research data to guide us, I suggest to parents that they build a culture of touch-screen device use based on these principles:


Research data has suggested that children younger than 2 who watch television have increased problems with sleep and may be slower to develop language skills than their non-television-watching peers. In light of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children not have passive screen time before age 2. This is probably a good cutoff for tablet devices as well, with infants and toddlers needing to develop the motor, sensory and other skills necessary to interact with and make meaning of the “real world” before encountering the digital representations of actions and objects.


Remember, children watch closely what you do. When you are with them at the dinner table or the park, if you are checking out Facebook or playing Words With Friends, they will learn that this is what being together, eating together, playing at the park is all about.

If you find yourself having difficulty torn between your touch-screen world and parenting, you may wish to pick some times to be phone/touch screen-free, leaving devices outside the room or in bins or drawers — demonstrating to children how to initiate, engage, and then disengage from the world electronic.


British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott provocatively wrote that “there is no such thing as a baby. . . . A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship.” In the spirit of Winnicott, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as an iPad, but an iPad and the relationship children and their caregivers have with it. I recommend parents use the very apps and watch the same videos they download for their kids, many times pre-viewing/pre-experiencing these and then enjoying them alongside their children. Often a child can often learn more about an app and experience more pleasure in mastery of a particular skill with a parent alongside her.


If you decide that touch screens are a good fit for your preschooler, then one of the next questions is: how much time is appropriate? Left to their own devices, pun intended, many children will put down their family’s tablet within minutes, preferring to play with toys or interacting with their parents. Others may find themselves transfixed by “Monkey Preschool Lunchbox,” unable to shift their attention. I suggest to many parents that tablet time be regulated so that children do not spend more than about 20 minutes on the device without “coming up for air.” This can be accomplished by sitting alongside your child and setting the timer on your device to ring your child’s preferred tablet/phone sound at 20 minutes, indicating to them, and to you, that it’s time to take an agreed upon break. This may wrap up a tablet session for the day or provide the necessary break for you and your child to discuss what they’ve discovered and what else they would like to do on the tablet.


It’s important to learn about the apps you download on your phone. Reviewing the parent comments on iTunes and on many parent blogs may provide you with the best sense of which apps match your child’s developmental needs and your family’s values in terms of how best to spend time.

Opportunities Gained and Lost

As important as reflecting on what your child is enjoying or learning (colors, shapes, letters, improving memory) on your tablet, how often she is enjoying it and for how long, it is equally important to examine what your child is missing as a result. For example, if you find yourself using the device in a crowded restaurant in order to distract your child, might she be missing an opportunity to learn patience or social engagement with you or others in order to distract herself from hunger? Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to touch screens in restaurants, but it is important to be aware about those opportunities (developing patience: say, to save the tablet for “dessert,” playing outside, learning social give-and-take, coloring, using her imagination, experiencing the world in a tactile as opposed to flat “touch-screen” manner) lost while a child is “on a tablet.”


It is important to learn about the parental control settings on your device and to use these to prevent children from stumbling upon apps, videos and Internet content that is not developmentally appropriate. There are a number of resources on the Web that guide parents through easily turning on/off parent controls on touch-screen devices.

Craigan Usher, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital