Big Tech and Small Children

boy with electronic tablet

Most young children interact with some form of technology in our modern lives. Whether it is watching television, communicating with family via video calls, or playing games on a tablet, young children may have quite a bit of experience with technology. Many parents and educators consider technology something to be used with caution. This tool kit gives parents and educators recommendations for technology use, how to get involved in technology, what to look for when selecting technology, and how to place limits on technology use.

Recommendations for Technology Use from the AAP

The American Academy of Pediatrics has provided guidance to families of young children to support healthy media use habits.

  • For children younger than age 2, media use should be limited and only when an adult is supporting a child’s learning (e.g., a video call with grandparents). Infants and toddlers learn best from exploring the world around them physically and interacting with adults and children in-person.
  • For children 2–5 years old, limit technology use to one hour per day. When possible, co-view or co-play with your child to help them understand what they are seeing.

Turn off the television when you are not watching it. Prioritize reading physical books over digital books. Try to avoid using media to calm your child or right before bedtime because screens can negatively impact a child’s sleep habits.

It is important to note that for each day most young children need adequate sleep (8–12 hours, including naps) and an hour of physical activity or play. Overuse of digital media and screens can cause sleep problems and even put your child at risk for obesity or problems at school. Limiting screen time and providing time away from media allows your child to develop healthy habits. By giving your child many opportunities to play, do puzzles, “read” books, and explore, they are experiencing activities that are healthy for their bodies and mind.

What to Look for When Selecting Tech for Your Child

Looking for apps and digital games that work for young children is challenging. There are so many from which to choose. Here are some considerations as you look for kid-friendly technology:

  • Is the app fun, developmentally appropriate, and nonviolent?
  • Do you want the app to be entertaining, educational, or both?
  • Are there ads that pop up on the screen while your child interacts with the app?
  • After downloading the app, try it out yourself. Ask yourself, will my child be interested in this app? Is it on their “just right” level?

Consider having a limited amount of apps or games on a device at any given time. For example, you might have three apps downloaded and on the tablet home screen for a preschooler’s use: a puzzle app, a drawing app, and a literacy game that encourages practicing letter sounds. Then, as time and interests change, delete an app and add a new one. This allows you to follow your child’s interests while not overwhelming them with too many choices.

Get Involved in Tech Use with Your Child

Spending tech time together with your child is important to support active learning.

  • For example, if your child is watching a cartoon, watch along with them and ask questions about the show. “Wow. Why is the fox looking for her friend? He looks sad.”
  • Follow along with educational shows, “Did you see that letter on the screen? What is it? D, like in Diana, your name! Yes!”

This time together helps your child understand what they are watching or playing and helps build your relationship.

Too Much Tech? Consider Limits

Determine technology time limits and strategies for ending tech time whenever you introduce technology. Clear boundaries and expectations will help your child understand how technology fits into their day and can help prevent struggles.

  • Use a timer or place parental controls on the television or tablets to provide a timed limit for screen time. Explain time limits to children before you implement them. “Today we can watch videos for 30 minutes, then the tablet will turn off and we are all done for the day.”
  • Offer choices to the child. “Do you want to watch the cartoon or play with the app today?”
  • Explain what will come after technology time. “After tablet time, we are going to color together at the table. I’ll set that up so we are all ready to go.”
  • Set expectations about where you will use technology. “You can play your tablet in our home. When we have to wait at stores and restaurants, you can look at a book or play with a toy.”
  • Consider creating a family media use plan that works within your family’s values and time.
  • Get more ideas from our podcast on Too Much Tech: Sceen Time and Families.

Being consistent with technology limits allows the child to experience a balance of digital games and hands-on play. Limiting media use can positively impact your child’s sleep, learning and social skills, behavior, and health.

Assistive Technology and Young Children with Disabilities

Some children use technology to communicate. Children with certain disabilities may use assistive and augmentative communication (AAC) devices to talk with friends and family. An AAC device may look like a tablet, but it has a very different purpose than entertainment. A child may press photos on the screen to indicate what they want. For example, when a teacher asks a child what they would like for snack, the child presses a picture of a muffin, and the device says “muffin.”

The AAC device is the child’s voice, and the device should stay with the child throughout the day. This includes during mealtimes, circle time, playground, and any other routine or activity to allow the child to comment or express their needs and wants. Most children receive support in learning how to use their AAC device from a speech and language pathologist or another specialist. These specialists often come into the classroom or the home to work with the child. This is a great opportunity to learn from the specialist about how to best support a child who uses assistive technology.

Web Resources

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Family Child Care
  • Home
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2022