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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

February 19, 2013 at 3:31 PM

Toddlers and tech: ‘Whenever we denied her the tablet, we had an instant meltdown’

Now that tablets are on the media menu, parents have new decisions to make. How much “tablet time” is OK for kids? At what age? And what kind — the “shows” that just stare at them or the puzzles, games and books that keep them engaged?

In Sunday’s column I explored some of the current thinking about screens and kids — particularly toddlers. Pediatricians recommend no screen time for kids under the age of 2. But when screens are so tactile and interactive, does that still mean the same thing?

Reader Heath Hunnicutt emailed me his experience with his 21-month-old daughter, who began showing an interest in the family’s iPad at 9 months. It’s a fascinating account he was generous enough to let me share with you.

Here it is, in his own words:

My wife and I have a 21-month-old girl. We also have an Android tablet and an iPad.

An aside: The first time she saw a real printed page, she immediately tried to zoom in on it.  She touched it and made the “zoom” gesture.  This book wasn’t so great, it didn’t zoom.

During the 9-12 month age, we were pretty enthused by our daughter’s interest in the iPad.

For example, the iPad app “Paint Sparkles” was great fun for her — fingerpainting without the mess. We had a piano keyboard app that was fun for her to jam on. We also had a “drum set” that she could bang on. Finally, there were some games which had music that she liked to dance to.

At first, this all seemed pretty good. We had to supervise in case she got into a situation where the app wanted an answer to something (e.g. “Do you really want to erase this drawing?”). She hadn’t yet learned to navigate the user interface.

But there were already some problems. The finger-painting app had an in-app purchase for “coloring book” style templates. Our daughter would often wind up there. Worse, the app had a bug which made it impossible to cancel out of this mode, without quitting the app. This was a frustration, but still the overall fun was worth it.

After a while, things got a little worse. First, she got better at navigating the UI and had a tendency to explore apps that were not fun for her. (Federal Register?  Wi-Fi signal monitor? etc.) Second, some of the fun apps published updates, and the updates added advertisement which ruined the experience for her. The piano app and the drums app added an ad to the top of the screen area, and she would frequently accidentally touch it. Some of the ads were even inappropriate for her age (e.g., games full of bloodshed, as depicted in the ad and the page it links to).

Also, as she aged, her ability to express preferences verbally developed. Because she would say “more tablet” at this point, she got even more tablet time than before.

Also, when she developed the ability to express her desire verbally, our entire relationship changed. Previously, when she asked for something and we didn’t give it to her, she could chalk that up to misunderstanding or ineffective communication. She really did not cry or complain when we denied her requests during that stage. Once she developed mini-sentences, that all changed. At that point, she understood when she was being denied. This is when the tantrums started for us.

Thus we had a convergence of tantrums around the tablet. Whenever we denied her the tablet, we had an instant melt-down. We had to hide the tablet whenever we put it away, to prevent that visual clue that reminds her she can play with the tablet. Otherwise, the mere presence of a tablet in the room triggered an immediate, “more tablet!”  She even started waking up in the morning saying “more tablet.” It was obviously her favorite thing to play with — way better than balls, blocks, or books.

We were sort of weathering the tantrums and working on the aspect of communication wherein we get to say “no,” and allowing her to continue using the tablet.

She got better and better at working the UI.  In fact, she could navigate through various apps and games faster than I could tell what was going on.

And then it happened. One day, she discovered that she could rapidly switch back-and-forth between two screens in a game, and the tablet would strobe at her. One screen was white, the other dark blue. She was hovering six inches over the screen, making it strobe as rapidly as she could possibly work it.  She was mesmerizing herself or something. That was the moment that we knew the tablet had to be excised from her life.  Strobing yourself with an LCD is not our idea of quality entertainment, I guess.

Because she loved the Piano app, we bought an inexpensive Yamaha keyboard piano. We also purchased her first cardboard children’s books. (It is so hard to find cardboard books that aren’t full of brain-washing children’s rhymes, but that’s another story which ends in “Playbac books.”)

On the day we brought the keyboard home, she did a back-and-forth comparison between “real keyboard” and “tablet keyboard.” After about five minutes of back-and-forth comparison, she announced, “Done tablet, more real keyboard!” We hid the tablet and she hasn’t seen it since. She asked for it when she woke up in the morning for the next two days.

Since then, she has mostly forgotten about the tablet. Her interests have turned to the books and the real keyboard, as well as an increase in physical fun, like kicking a ball or balancing on a two-inch yoga block. The very nature of her play seems different now. When playing with the tablet, sometimes her interest in the activity seemed more like compulsion than enjoyment.  There were definitely times of pure fun with the tablet, but there were other times that seemed more like a search for fun. With her normal toys, it seems like she is playing with them because she enjoys it, versus experimenting with combinations of gestures in an app to see if she can locate some fun.

Her early reading and spelling skills are really taking off now. It seems like learning letters, numbers, and three-letter words simply skyrocketed for her when we replaced the tablet time with blocks and books time. She had been physically active and learning letters, numbers, and words before we took the tablet away.

But with the tablet gone, these activities became her most fun outlets and her progress definitely accelerated.

Seen a story that caught your eye re: digital life? Email me at or reach me on Twitter or Facebook.



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