Wednesday 13 December 2017

Teched up toddlers: Getting the balance right with screen time

Small ones find our smartphones irresistible - and devices can often serve as a welcome distraction in times of need. But it's all about striking a balance, writes Olivia Willis

Stock image
Stock image

Olivia Willis

When it first happens, you goo and gah and think it's cute: your little one takes hold of your mobile phone, puts it up to his ear and attempts a "Hel-woh", followed by an imaginary conversation with someone on the other end. You tell your other half or your best friend, and you gush about how adorable the whole charade was.

But then the next time he gets hold of it, your settings go a little nuts, your pictures get deleted and you realise that the smartphone must go bye-byes - before the phone ends up down the toilet and the backlash isn't pretty. Toddlers think, 'Mam is so into this thing, it must be lots of fun!' and you can hardly blame their obsession.

When my youngest was two, he was sitting quietly on the sofa with a picture of him that I had just framed. After a few moments, I could see him getting frustrated, so I went to check in and see why. He getting angry with the picture because it wouldn't swipe. He thought the frame was an iPad. Wow.

A US survey recently reported that 70pc of parents allow their toddlers and young kids to use their iPad. The same polled parents have downloaded an average of eight apps designed specifically for kids. Which isn't a surprise considering we see children playing with digital devices wherever we go: restaurants, doctors' waiting rooms, in the back of a car in their seats…the list continues.

Children these days are not called digital natives for nothing. My own mother asks my own a question about technology before she'll ask me.

They are proud, device-carrying members of Generation Now and consider it a given that access to technology is a right, and the superior tool for both entertainment and learning. And this starts at a very young age.

New apps catering to preschoolers are developed every day, many of which are digital variations of timeless kid classics; iPads are also replacing the messy hassle of painting and other art projects with no-mess, no-fuss art apps. It is a sign of the times when your Montessori's supply list includes a flash drive, in addition to stalwarts such as glue and crayons.

Some would argue that the road to technology for chidlren starts too young. "There's really is no 'right' age to allow our kids to dip a toe into the digital pond," says tech expert Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD, author of Cyber Safe. "But if we pay attention, we can decide what makes the most sense for our kids," she says.

So, as parents of toddlers, what do we do? Do we fight it, or do we accept that constant access to technology is here to stay and that our kids have embraced it like jam on bread? Is it the job of parents not to deprive them but to help them manage their consumption? And if so, how can we do this? How can we dial back our babies' and toddlers' technology fascination while striking a good balance?

Toddlers love to imitate their parents, so one idea is to attempt to limit our own use in front of them. It's hard for us all, but try, even a little, to keep your device out of sight; most socialising online can wait until your child is in bed or you can delay answering that email until you're back in the office, unless it's a work emergency.

Then, of course, there is the reality that you've just arrived in the door from work and a trip to the supermarket, your toddler is fussy and fidgety, and 20 minutes' device time will buy you enough of an interval to put the groceries away and get dinner started. And so, you pass over your phone. If this sounds familiar, then perhaps letting him tinker with an app instead of him reconfiguring your address book is a good idea.

There are many apps you can download that are age-appropriate for pre-schoolers. For example, try Bubble Popper (free), a cause-and-effect game that mimics bubble wrap. If you keep your phone on airplane mode, it prevents any chance of the child clicking through to the internet.

There is also another great app you can download called Touch Lock - this allows you to freeze what your toddler is on so that they can't click out of it and into something you don't want them to access.

Teaching your children the gravity of technology's place in everyday life is important. Using a device as a babysitter or letting your child download an app as a reward for eating her broccoli reinforces the notion that these devices are simply toys, when in reality they could be viewed rather as portals to a world of knowledge and insight.

The variety of educational apps available can make the iPad or tablet a valuable alternative to other media. So long as young children's time on them is managed, apps can provide a far more beneficial level of engagement than the TV, for example. The interactive experience engages kids much more so than when they're just absorbing TV images. From a developmental point of view, you'd be forgiven for believing that interactive entertainment is a better option.

If you agree, then download apps to fit with the milestones children traditionally reach at this age, such as matching objects and completing simple puzzles, and monitor the time and frequency allowed on them.

Although we are putting these digital tools into the hands of babes, with a little vigilance on our part, the kids will be all right. In fact, they will probably be more than all right - they'll grow up to be digital citizens who embrace the challenges of the world they will inherit.

Whether we like it or not, it's coming. And as with most parenting worries, it's all about monitoring and striking the right balance.

Olivia Willis is the co-founder of, an Irish family lifestyle website with information for parents, things to do, daily articles, reviews, competitions and expert family advice

Listen to your body

“The physical benefits of postnatal excercise are wide-ranging and don’t really need to be listed — we all know that being fitter and stronger will help us cope better with motherhood — but to me the key benefit is, without a doubt, mental wellbeing,” says pregnancy and postnatal fitness expert Dr Joanna Helcke.

"The transition to motherhood is, in my view, quite a tough one, on so many fronts, and exercise has the potential to make us feel happier, be more positive, keep us smiling and — on the bad days — keep us sane. Start off in the very early days with the fundamentals of postnatal fitness: strengthening your pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles. Then gradually build things up step by step, from low-impact and gentle in the first six months to incrementally harder exercise thereafter, all while listening to your body. It’s no good ploughing relentlessly onwards and upwards if your body is giving you clear signals to slow down and take things more easily. It doesn’t matter if it takes you that little bit longer to reach your fitness goals, because putting in place those fitness foundations will make you stronger for longer.”

Irish Independent

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