Managing Tech for Tots

Over the past several years we’ve seen an explosion in the use of tablets and other devices by children who…

Jan 22, 2021

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By Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

Over the past several years we’ve seen an explosion in the use of tablets and other devices by children who are barely out of diapers.

And now, because of the pandemic, tech use among very young children has grown substantially as computers, tablets and phones become the only safe way for some young children to communicate with family members outside their household, engage in pre-school and play with their friends.

Even before the pandemic, it became clear that we needed to address the needs of younger children, which is why veteran educator Kerry Gallagher and I wrote the booklet Parent’s Guide to Tech for Tots, which this column is based-on. The free booklet is available to read or download at

What the research says

In 2017, Common Sense Media released a study showing that children under 2 spend under an hour with media and it is mostly TV media, but by ages 2 to 4 that number jumps to more than 2½ hours with more than an hour on a mobile device, a computer or a video game. By the time children are 5 to 8 years old, they are spending about 3 hours per day with media, according to the study. The organization did a follow-up study in 2020, which had similar results, but the survey was completed in early March — before the lockdowns began. Because children are now spending more time at home, those numbers are likely much higher today.

Of course, not all kids are attracted to tech. Some would rather play in the yard, read a book or hang out with friends and family. And, one consequence of the lockdown is tech fatigue. I don’t have survey data, but I’ve heard numerous stories about kids of all ages complaining about too much screen time, especially when it’s the only way they can learn or play.

What pediatricians recommend

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), has long published guidelines around children’s use of media, but a few years ago, they modified their guidelines to be a lot more flexible, realizing that one-size doesn’t fit all when it comes to what’s right for kids and families. Their current guidelines suggest that kids under 18 months should refrain from using laptops, phones and tablets except for video conversations with family and friends. For kids between 18 and 24 months, the AAP recommends that parents co-view high-quality content with their kids so that the media experience is social and children can talk about what they are seeing and doing. Experts say adult interaction with the child during media use at this age is crucial.

Between ages 2 and 5, AAP recommends that parents continue to co-view when possible or at least be nearby and should keep screen time to about an hour a day of high-quality programming. As children reach school age, about 6 and up, the pediatrician group emphasizes that families should talk about the media they consume or interact with and be consistent about how they use and limit the use of technology and media.

Again, these guidelines were written before COVID hit, so it makes sense for parents to be even more flexible during this period. But today’s environment also reinforces what I think is the most important point they make: “Instead of focusing on how much time a child spends on digital media, parents should consider the content of that media and the context in which they’re using it.”

Types of screen time

As parents think about what type of content to allow, it’s important to distinguish between active and passive screen time.  Passive screen time is watching screens with minimal cognitive engagement such as TV or online videos, scrolling through social media or photos, and playing simple games. Active screen time is when you are interacting with other people or are physically or cognitively engaged, such deo chats, educational games, or games that require players to build something or strategically work together. We’re also starting to see games and educational apps that use augmented reality or other tools that require physical activity.

As we say in our booklet, active screen time is valued over passive screen time, because the user’s mind and body are being engaged in ways that are valuable. Just as we want children to read to help engage their imaginations, we want them to utilize technology to help them practice communication, creative, academic, and other skills.

Banning screens and children’s privacy

You may have heard stories about parents, including some who are very tech-savvy, banning screens and media in their homes. While it has become more common to question the unbridled use of tech by young children, most of these families allow for appropriate tech use with clearer expectations and to when it is and isn’t appropriate for their children to be using screens. A “zero-use” policy is rare, and during COVID-19, even the strictest of parents often let up a bit when it comes to tech use.

Teachable moments

Supervised use of tech affords parents the opportunity to both act as good role models and help their children learn some important lessons about privacy and security such as not sharing personal information and creating secure passwords and passphrases or using biometrics to help secure their devices. It’s also a time to build media literacy such as helping children understand the difference between editorial or entertainment content and advertising and starting the process of helping them determine what information can be trusted and what might be suspect. These conversations should start when your children are young and continue till they reach their late teens, eventually turning into a true two-way conversations where the parents can learn as much from their kids as kids can from parents.

Whether you’re a parent, a grandparent or an early childhood educator, you’ll find a lot more, including device-specific advice, at

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