Should we let our children play on tablets and phones?

By Lucy Gill, Director of Apps and Technology at Fundamentally Children

In the modern world most of us adults are never far away from a screen, whether that’s a mobile, tablet, computer screen or TV but are these devices suitable for children? Views on this are often polarised: should you believe the fear stories around the dangers of screen time or the ones that focus on their benefits? Where does the truth lie?

If you start to look at the evidence in any detail what becomes quickly obvious is that both arguments have some truth to them. Excessive use of screens by children, whether that’s tablets, phones, computers or TVs, do lead to significant issues. These range from physical issues such as obesity and back problems through to nature deficit disorder and social impairment. However, the ‘right sort’of screen time has been shown to be genuinely beneficial. Depending on how their time is spent they can develop new skills in a range of areas, learn facts, become more resilient to online dangers and in one study a little video gaming was even linked to ‘well-adjusted children’.

However, these messages aren’t mutually exclusive. All they are saying is that there are some benefits for children using tablets and phones for the right activities for a limited period but they should not use them to excess.

It’s a message in common with many things – take fruit for example, haled as being wonderfully good for us, I assure you if you accidentally let your child eat a huge bowl of strawberries you’ll live to regret it! Not to mention if you decided to give them a diet only of fruit. We’re all familiar with the concept of aiming for a balance diet in our food, but at Fundamentally Children what we also try to get parents to understand is the important of a balanced PLAY diet.

This is a really key message for any parent who has decided to let their children use a tablet or phone. The important thing is that time spent playing on a screen is balanced with other forms of play, particularly active play, social play and imaginative play. If your child has been playing on a tablet for a little while, take him out to the park to balance it out.

However, this still leaves two questions – at what age should you start to let children play on tablets and phones and what should you allow them to do on these devices?

There are no hard and fast rules on when is a good age to give a child access to a tablet or phone. We’ve seen children as young as 18 months learn some of their first words from playing on an app but that doesn’t necessarily mean this is the best age to start. The decision is a personal one, and as much down to the parent as the child. As a parent you need to be ready to walk a hard line on use of such devices. Just as most children would eat a whole Easter egg in one go (if not several) given half a chance, children will typically try to play on tablets and phones to excess so you’ll need to be ready to set the boundaries and stick to them. You also need to find the time to choose the right content and decide how you will manage your child’s online safety. Of course there are also financial considerations – tablets and phones are expensive devices – and sharing your own devices with your child can have its own complications.

If that all sounds manageable then starting young can certainly have its advantages. Not just in terms of what they learn from the apps and games they play either. We find that those children who learn how to self-manage their own use of screens from a young age are better able to do this as they grow older, helping to prepare them for a world full of technology.

In terms of what they should play, we suggest looking for fun apps with an educational basis that have been independently approved such as by the Good App Guide. Get a range of apps from maths and literacy to science and creative and don’t be afraid to pay for great apps – they typically cost less than the price of a coffee or a magazine and can lead to hours of play value. We also suggest sitting alongside your child sometimes while they play apps, read interactive stories/ebooks or look at photos of family and friends on the device. It can be very tempting to get on with other things while your child is happy playing on a tablet and that’s fine sometimes but there is much more they can learn with you by their side and it’s a great way to ensure you know you’re comfortable with what they are playing. Tablets don’t all have to be about solitary, stationary play either – have a look for the rising number of apps that get children moving or play some music to get them dancing.

And finally, for those of you who have decided to wait, do try to minimise how much you use your own phone and/or tablet in front of your children – you’re just asking for trouble!

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