Expert Opinion

Is having access to an iPad bad for my child? Should I ban it?

Currently in Australia, it is recommended that children under 2 do not have access to screens at all (television, devices etc.) and that children aged between 2 and 5 have no more than one hour of screen time each day. The main reason screen time needs to be limited for young children is because of what being on, or in front of, a screen prevents them from otherwise doing – age-appropriate play and activities.

The brain grows by around 90% before 5 years of age. So this time is extremely precious in providing a child with adequate opportunities for enrichment – activities that allow them to learn and practise important skills like communication, how to move their bodies, and how to interact socially.

For children who are aged 2 and up, an iPad can be used in moderation, in accordance with the screen time recommendations. When used responsibly, your child might find it to be an engaging learning tool where they can play educational games allowing them to exercise their developing brain.

Parents should always have the screen time settings adjusted to provide the highest level of protection for their child – including turning off location services, and restricting content to the level appropriate for the child’s age.

What is co-viewing? Is it that important?

Co-viewing is the term we use when parents engage in screen time with their children. During COVID, there was an increase in co-viewing amongst families, for obvious reasons – we didn’t have much else to do!

Interestingly, kids really enjoy spending time with their parents in this way – whether it be watching TV, gaming on consoles, or playing games on the iPad or phone together.

Co-viewing can serve multiple purposes – it can act as a protective factor in keeping kids safe online, allowing for opportunities for parents to actively teach their children in the moment when problems arise online. However, it is also a way for parents to connect with their children in a meaningful way. Often as parents, we want to connect with our kids, but struggle to find a way that works. Our child might not engage as much in an activity that we have chosen because it might not be as interesting for them. Yet, if we try to play a game with our children that we don’t find interesting, it can make us resistant to setting aside the time to engage with our child. Co-viewing provides an alternative which often, both parties find motivating and interesting.

So, rather than seeing the screens as a babysitter, and using your child’s screen time as an opportunity to go and get things done, try engaging with them and letting them show you what they’re playing or watching. You’ll be surprised at the power of connecting with your child in this way!

Does screen time negatively impact the social skills or mental health of children?

This really depends on the age of the child and what they’re doing on the screen. Research has shown that certain online activities are associated with increased levels of mental health problems – particularly in reference to the use of social media in kids and teens. We also know that increased screen time has been associated with attention problems, school difficulties, sleep problems and eating disorders as well as obesity. However, there is also the case that some online activities allow children and teens the opportunity to stay connected socially, decreasing feelings of isolation. So it really is all about balance.

For your littlies though, real life interactions are ideal for young children to learn how to communicate, share, play, and interact with others. If a child is spending too much time on a screen, it takes valuable time away from opportunities to learn these important skills.

Should I feel guilty for letting my toddler watch TV?

Parents experience feelings of guilt far too often – and we need to cut ourselves some slack! If allowing your toddler to watch TV means that you have a few minutes to bath the baby, or have a cup of tea and relax, then it is not going to be the end of the world. Parental mental health has a really big impact on children, so if preserving your mental health means putting on the TV, don’t waste that opportunity by feeling guilty. You can try putting some measures in place to make the most out of the situation such as:

  • Ensuring your toddler is only watching age-appropriate shows
  • Talking to them (where possible) about what they’ve been watching
  • Using a timer to keep track of how much time they’re in front of the screen.

How can I navigate a healthy relationship with technology for my child?

While many of us would like to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the rise of technology in the lives of our children, sadly it is just not possible! The online world is simply an extension of the ‘real’ world for our kids, which means as parents we really need to understand the risks associated with it, as well as how it can be used for positive.

To encourage a healthy relationship between your child and technology, I recommend:

  • Put boundaries in place from the get-go. These should be around where, when, how, and how much the devices are used. Have rules within your family that cover these factors, and be consistent.
  • Never allow screens in bedrooms. If your child is on a screen, they need to be in view of the supervising adult.
  • For younger children, parents should become familiar with parental controls on the device their child is using. For instance, on apple devices, the Screen Time settings can become your best friend whereby you can control the amount of screen time your child has access to, setting content restrictions as well as restricting app access and removing web search.
  • Never use device removal as a consequence of something untoward (such as bullying) happening online. This only serves to encourage your child not to tell you about such incidents.

Fundamentally, encouraging a healthy relationship is about teaching your child the skills to be independent and safe online. This only comes with experience, practice, trial and error, and plenty of open conversations with parents.

What are some ways or methods to ensure my child isn’t becoming reliant on technology?

Many parents fear that their children will become addicted to screen time – in particular, gaming. However, for the vast majority of children, this will not be the case. Like most things in life, preventing your child from having too much focus in one area, all comes down to balance. I encourage parents to think about all the different aspects of their child’s life – including social interactions, family time, individual play, organized activities, etc. and ensure there are enough aspects each day that don’t use screens. The other helpful strategy is about modeling a healthy use of technology ourselves! Our kids ‘soak up’ everything that we as their parents do – so we can tell them to ‘turn off the iPad’ as much as we like, but if we are spending too much time scrolling on our phones, we are sending a mixed message.

Because technology is such an integral part of our lives today  – and even more so for our kids, we need to have a realistic mindset about what we want to achieve. Remember that your child will be using technology to connect with their friends and family, as well as to learn. So be realistic about the times you’re expecting to be ‘tech free’ especially for older children and teens.

By setting clear boundaries within the family around technology like:

  • No screens in bedrooms
  • Phones go off overnight
  • Ensuring there are plenty of screen-free activities available for younger children
  • Not having phones at the table

You can promote balance and ensure you’re teaching your child how to manage the technology in their lives as they get older.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
Photo by Drew Rae