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Exploring Healthy Tech Use for Toddlers and Infants: Therapist Tips and Strategies



In today’s digital age, technology has become an integral part of our lives- where toddlers and infants are growing up in a world filled with screens and devices. As a mom and child therapist, I see how toddlers and infants seem to love screens; possibly because it grabs their attention and often keeps them engaged with all of the colors, shapes, and moving characters. It is easy to see why tired parents and busy teachers sometimes reach for screens; as a distraction, learning tool, or even as a calming strategy. While the mental health and medical fields are still researching what happens to the brain of infants and toddlers during screen time, we have found some answers along the way. We will touch on some of this research and I’ll offer my therapist tips for navigating the quickly changing world of tech with our youngest learners.


Know the developing brain- - What really happens in the infant and toddler’s brain when they are watching a screen? We know through many studies screens are not an effective teaching tool for infants as they learn best from face-to-face interactions. In a study of 2,441 mothers and children it was found that the more time per week spent on screens at ages 24 months and 36 months was linked with poorer performance on screening tests for behavioral, cognitive and social development at 36 months old. Another researcher, Georgene Troseth found this is likely because the infant brain views screens as not pertinent to real life so they are unwilling to take in the information. As children get a little older, they can learn from slow-pace educationally designed media and screen time usually between ages 3-5 years old. A study of 171 preschoolers found kids who watched educational programming outperformed other kids. Preschoolers benefit and enjoy co-viewing programs with adults to discuss what is happening and what they are learning. From research the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has offered the following guidelines to parents and educators for screen time.

  • 18 months and under- avoid screen time except video-chatting with family and friends.

  • 18-24 months- high-quality educational programming with co-viewing

  • 2-5 years old- limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality educational programs


View tech with kids- Tech for young kids is best co-viewed with a trusted parent or educator; this offers several benefits including interaction to engage them in learning educational content, screening inappropriate content, and answering curious questions as they arise. This doesn’t mean you have to watch screens with your kids every moment But it can mean viewing games, apps, or videos before your kids, using parental controls, and popping in and out to see what and engage them in what they are using.


Turn off tech during social times- Turning off tech during family dinners, playdates, and family play time helps kids soak up all of the mental, social, and emotional benefits play and social interaction has to offer their developing bodies and minds. Even just having a TV on in the background impacts learning for babies and toddlers. A parent speaks about 940 words per hour when a toddler is around, but when the TV is on the parent only speaks 170 words per hour. This is a lot of loss of learning and social engagement for babies and toddlers.


Develop a tech plan with clear expectations- kids thrive with caring and thoughtful structure in their day so tech is not different. Develop a tech plan for your babies and kids early on and change the plan as they develop and need different structure. You can use Family Media Plan at this link: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/fmp/Pages/MediaPlan.aspx to develop a plan with your kids at home.


Teach kids tech safety- Talk about the things they could see on tech as they start to develop more understanding and language. Help them to know if they feel uncomfortable (get a funny feeling in their stomach) or scared to look away and go find an adult to tell. Even with parental controls and a watchful eye inappropriate things can pop up or movies can be scary for little ones.


Written By: Jennifer Wilmoth, LMFT



References and additional resources:




Child development, Vol. 69, No. 4, 1998



International Journal for cross-disciplinary subjects in Education, Vol. 6, No.1, 2015


J

AMA Pediatrics, Vol. 173, No. 3, 2019




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