Introducing Technology To A Toddler

Hi Janet,

My partner and I wanted to get your knowledgeable advice…

Our daughter Maggie, who just turned 3, has not watched a minute of TV in her life…no movies, no computers…nothing.  We don’t even have toys that make noises or do things….strictly RIE!  As a result, she is a polite, mature beyond-her-age, confident three year old who loves books (yay!!) and creative play.   However, now that she’s older, we were discussing the idea of perhaps introducing her to the world of electronics (it’s inevitable!) by means of an educational game on an iPad.  It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but our fear is that we could undo all the work we’ve accomplished thus far.  Could she forsake all her books and real games for an electronic tablet? Are we nuts to think this?  

Best,                                                                                                                                                                         David

Hi David,

You and your partner have done an incredibly wonderful thing by giving your daughter a screen-free first three years. This is huge. And, in my experience, you are almost entirely home free, because Maggie has had the opportunity to develop the habit of active play and self-entertainment, a love of books, an attentive, focused mind, listening skills, creative initiative, the list goes on… Kudos to you!

You aren’t “nuts” to worry about introducing electronics after all your hard work, because they can easily become a child’s focus. But gradually introducing some entertainment and technology won’t undo what you have accomplished (though I have a problem when electronics manufacturers label their products ‘educational’ and target them to parents of infants, toddlers and preschoolers. But that’s another post). The key is to set consistent limits and continue to do so. Then you’ll find, as we have, that your child can appreciate and utilize electronic media without it hindering healthy brain and body development.

Rather than leave the iPad out and available to her along with her other toys, I suggest offering it only at a specific time or times each day. This would probably not be first thing in the morning or any other time when she commonly has lots of mental and physical energy. My best recommendation is to save entertaining devices for late afternoons between nap and dinner time, weekend nights, long car rides and waiting rooms.

You will be opening up a can of worms in the sense that she is bound to want to use the iPad when you don’t want her to, and she probably won’t want to stop once she’s started. Say ‘no’ lightly but firmly and project the same confidence you do when setting other limits. And don’t forget to acknowledge, empathize with and accept her point-of-view, complaints and tears – just don’t let her sway you. (One reason I waited as long as possible to introduce my children to screens was my resistance to dealing with more of their resistance!)

“Yes, I know you want to use the iPad now and that’s very frustrating. You’ll have a chance to play with it after your nap.” Or, “It’s really hard to stop playing once you’ve started. I know. I’m sorry, but it’s time to put it away.”

An interesting thing you’ll notice (if you haven’t already) is that because you have raised Maggie to be sensitive and absorbent, her focus and retention will be remarkable. This will affect her ability to learn from the iPad and everything else. And since she wasn’t exposed to complicated toys and electronic gadgets as a baby, she has been encouraged to seek to understand her environment. TVs, computers, and toys that have buttons, make noises and do mysterious things tend to discourage active exploration, because they make no sense to a baby — are impossible to understand. Maggie’s ultra-awareness and self-motivated learning skills assure she’ll be an excellent learner throughout her school career and beyond.

Down the road this sensitivity, attentiveness and awareness may manifest in her being disturbed by what she sees in a movie or on television, because she hasn’t been exposed to the same volume of media as other children. You should be aware of this and know that she may continue to need some “protection” in this area. We’ve had to turn down several birthday party invitations over the years because they included screenings of movies that we worried would be too scary, violent or otherwise disturbing for our kids.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s friends and their parents may wonder why learning comes so easily and naturally to your daughter. Congratulate yourselves for fostering her sensitivity, attention span and higher learning skills, and keep up the great work!


P.S. Just after writing this post, a non-profit early childhood organization, 4C for Children, serendipitously pointed me to an ABC News story (Debate: Do iPads and Smartphones Really Teach Toddlers to Read?) that has me even more convinced that the iPAD should be considered an entertainment device rather than an educational tool.  


Please share your experiences and/or advice for David!

(Photo by David Boyle on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you for your sage advice once again…much appreciated! We will keep you posted!

  2. I love how practical and yet sympathetic your posts always are, Janet! Thanks for mentioning 4C, too!

  3. David,
    Do you or your partner have a blog? I would love to hear more about how you parent your daughter and what her days are like!

  4. If your child were a boy, I’d say delay as long as you can. We thought we did great keeping our son away from screens until he was three, but got into royal battles later. I can’t emphasize enough how important Janet’s advice on limits is. And don’t forget, as Maggie gets older and goes on play overs at other girls’ homes, to let the other parents know what your screen/tech limits for Maggie are.

    1. Wolf, excellent point about requesting no screens on playdates. That was very tough and awkward for me and I’m afraid my requests may have been a little off-putting, even though I tried to be tactful. I know I was sometimes perceived as being judgmental. But I never understood having a friend over and turning on the TV or computer. Those aren’t social activities, especially for children that young. To me it seemed like such a wasted opportunity to really play with somebody.

    2. I agree with what you are saying Wolf, but don’t understand the gender differentiation. gender should not play a part in introducing screen time or the amount they have. Nor should we make sweeping statements about specific genders. Some boys prefer dressing up and painting to construction, while some girls would rather play in the mud than with dolls. Each child is unique.

      I would also caution you against assuming that Maggie would only have play overs with other girls. While it may be an innocent oversight on your part, it’s stereotyping such as that that can restrtict the opportunities children have.

      But yes, overall parents of peers should collaborate and take other’s parenting styles into consideration. If david removed a certain type of food from Maggie’s diet, such as red meat, I would expect other parent to adhere to that if she was in their care. The same should apply for screen time.

  5. After reading the papers from the AAP’s Media Matters campaign, I have kept my daughter away from all TV/videos that are violent. And really if you think of it, ALL animated movies have violence. She is 3 and since the age of 2 we’ve watched PBS shows only and only when I watch them with her. Problem is, I’m a single mother working full time and also have an 11 month old. So they both attend a large daycare center. They love it. It’s a wonderful place! But…. this lends itself to two issues….

    First, they were showing Toy Story to the kids. They didn’t tell me! So my daughter was afraid of her toys, every time a dog barked she freaked out (bully Sid has a dog, remember?). And she started pushing me! Remember Woody gets jealous of Buzz and seemingly kills him by pushing him out the window? Seriously, who can even imagine showing this to a 2 year old…or 3 year old?! Well I got on them as soon as I discovered the root cause, and they’ve down away with the TV watching. So that issue is remedied.

    However…. I struggle with how much I’m sheltering my child. All her friends pretend to be Harry Potter or talk about characters from the movies and she has no idea what that is. I’m struggling so much with this! With Cars 2 coming out all the kids are talking about Lightening McQueen and wearing the clothes and what not. She has no idea what that is. So sometimes I feel like I’m making my daughter a social outsider. But, coming out of a domestic violence situation, I feel violence is something we should never be desensitized to. We should be sickened by it!

    So, am I making her socially awkward in that she doesn’t know of what all her playmates do? And talking about the whole play aspect…. When the kids are left to play on their own they play these characters. So is she unable to play with her peers to the full potential? Am I sheltering her too much?

    This is so difficult!

    1. I feel for you and relate to you…completely. I had to complain to my children’s grade school a couple of times about the movies they screened — okay for most children, but not mine, and thankfully, the school was very sensitive about the matter. Most educators are highly appreciative of children who are able to listen and pay attention in the classroom and understand the effect media has on those abilities. I would be upset about the movies in daycare…wonderful that they did away with them! I recently read that daycare centers use TV and movies even for children under 2, which is shocking and dismaying.

      One thing I can reassure you about is the idea that your daughter will be an “outsider” because she isn’t exposed to those movies and TV programs. For me this was a small, unimportant issue, because I soon found that a child who has not been innundated with media has real creativity to bring to a social situation. These children are attractive to other children and parents because they know how to invent play. Sadly, some children seem to lose this ability by the age of 3 or 4 because they become accustomed to passive entertainment.

      Research has shown that children will use character toys and action figures far more creatively when they haven’t viewed the shows connected with those toys, but the children who watch the programs only use the characters in an imitative way. Keep protecting your daughter from electronic media. You will be so glad you did!

      1. Thank you for your response. I do believe I am doing the right thing in the long run. It still isn’t easy though! 😀

        My daughter is incredibly imaginative and so emotionally and mentally mature. Most of the time I forget she’s not a 30 year old in a 3 year old body! Until she reminds me she is truly just 3! She is just wonderful! I really think that has so much to do with keeping her from violent media. Like I said we do watch PBS shows as I’ve never seen any violence in there. And she does learn so much from them.

        I should clarify when I say daycare it is a daycare/preschool. And preschool starts at age 2. It’s play based and child-led. They call it creative curriculum. When she first started there they claimed to be a RIE center. But now they sort of take from many different theories/methods. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place. My daughter and my 11 month old son thrive so well there! And as soon as I mentioned my concerns with the movie issue that stopped. I emailed them the link to the AAP’s Media Matters documents. I think all parents should read them. They are eye opening!

      2. I can’t believe a daycare would show any kind of tv! I’m not even a fan of tv based toys or books in a classroom (which is what a daycare is) I truly cannot wrap my head around it. I run a home based daycare and would be mortified if I couldn’t think of anything to do but sit the kids in front of a screen. Can kids under two even sit there for more than a couple minutes? I realize that there aren’t nearly enough quality daycares out there but I would certainly add screen time to the questions asked before choosing a place for your child.

  6. Janet, You know that I love you, and usually I agree whole heartedly with everything you write. I really appreciate how sensitively you responded to what I see as a difficult and important question.You make several good points, all of which I agree with, but having said all that- I wonder why you didn’t just encourage David to wait on introducing the Ipad to Maggie? (This may go down in history as the only time I’ve ever disagreed with a word you’ve written :), or in this case, didn’t write.)
    Here’s my reasoning: They’ve made it this far without TV, movies, and computers, and Maggie is thriving, and doesn’t know that she’s “missing” anything(and I would argue that she’s not missing a thing)so why not wait? It’s true that it’s inevitable that Maggie will encounter technology soon enough, but why rush? At this time, this choice is in the hands of her parents. My question is, what is to be gained by introducing the iPad now, as opposed to a year or even two years from now? I can see the potential problems associated with introducing the iPad to a three year old (having to set and enforce limits around the use of the iPad, being one of them)but not the benefits…

    1. Lisa, thank you! I agree with you and am so glad you spoke up. I was relating this to watching the occasional short video (we didn’t have iPads when my kids were young), which I think is fine if done mindfully and with limits. But, it is certainly not necessary or positive to give an iPad to a 3 year old. I don’t see any benefits either, and in my experience, the longer one waits for these things, the better.

  7. Watch how bright those ipads are on young eyes and the position of viewing. Which visual field (or field of vision~FOV) do you want to introduce first? Some prefer vertical field because it is like reading on a flat desk surface, more like how kids will be writing (maybe if writing still happens).

    Others prefer the horizontal plane like the TV or computer screen because our brains use that field better for spacial awareness (old hunting and returning spacial skills of the old brain). FOV is a neat study with humans having color and motion cells located in the center region of the retina.

    I personally like screens up on a stand to save my neck and eyes as I sit when using ours.

    And you will see the boy brain (sorry Magda) is very much attracted to screens (old brain difference I believe) and will do almost anything for screen time to feed that visual spacial need (personal observation).

    And you better make up your mind who is in charge of the screen. Free unlimited discovery with screens is setting up the idea kids are in charge of them, and later kids might be angry when we take them back with limits on time and viewing choice.

    Of course geocaching feeds that spatial need in a natural 3D way~and introduces the world of geospatial technology~

  8. Thanks Janet for a really respectful post about media.

    We are very carefully considering introducing screens to our children. Our five hour car rides we take a few times a year to see the grandparents are quite tough for our four year old. She has a really difficult time settling (has rarely slept in the car). She can play for hours by herself at home. Her imagination and focus (and memory) are incredible. But in the car none of these skills are available to her. The one thing that her doctor mentioned was that if we did (play a DVD) – first of all it could be limited to just the car trips (great boundary). Second, we could control what they watched. I don’t think I though like this before. It doesn’t need to be those annoying Dora videos, or any of the Disney movies. I have researched a few nature shows like Under the Sea and Disney (ha) Nature Earth. There is also a DVD with real ballet performances – but in short scenes for kids. I am still wrestling with this idea but I think it will be a reality one day.
    I was a little concerned about my children integrating with others who are media (character) saturated but I know now it’s not going to be a problem. I love how my four year old tells me about Cinderella. She doesn’t know about the story but she thinks she does – has her own ideas. When we happened to see some dolls that were Disney princess themed she just asked about them and the kids told her – a great little social interaction.

  9. Janet,

    I was just about to write a note to you asking you how we can introduce an iPAD to Anagha, and here you have written a post about it already.

    What can I say except a hollow Thanks 🙂

  10. I had to search your website to get back to this blog. I remembered reading it not too long ago. I am struggling so much with bringing in an Ipad/Leapster into my home. I know I should not care about what others are doing with their children but it’s SO hard. I don’t want him (2.5 year old) to ever feel like an outcast. I recently allowed him to watch my computer while I took a shower. He became addicted to it and every day would wake up asking for my computer. I immediately stopped letting him watch it and he never sees me on it while he is awake. I hated how addicted he got to it and thankfully he has completely forgotten about it. I am confident I can limit his time on these other electronics but I just don’t know if there is a point of having them at all.

  11. As an alternative perspective, my daughter has had access to TV and various forms of electronics since she was about 6 months old. She’s 8 now, and has her own iPad, Nintendo DS, comptuer, and has access to the family TV, YouTube, Nintendo Wii/U, playstation etc. We have no limits on the use of these, but she doesn’t play them all day. In fact, when we visit friends, and the TV is on, she is the only one not glued to it, trying to pull the kids away to play.

    Electronics aren’t the things that cause problems. Setting limits makes something more desirable, and thus kids will play as long as they can when they are allowed to play. Removing the limits makes it just one choice among many. A child can choose not to watch, because they know they can come back later if they want.

  12. My personal view is that the vast majority of technology ‘designed for toddles and other young children is in fact merely marketed to the parents in a way that makes them feel guilty or ineffective parents if they don’t get their product for their child. they play on parent’s fears that they want to do all they can for their children. The problem is, the younger a child is the more time they need to be themselves in order to explore and discover the world around them. Screen time this young takes away that independence & introduces the ddangerous world of immediate gratification.

    As a parent I introduces leap pads to my children at a relatively young age (about 4 or 5). This as several years ago well before tablets, smart phone or even laptops were around. In hindsight I would have waited, or not have bought them at all. They goot just as much, if not more, out of books anyway.

  13. We also have very limited electronic use. I bought a Kindle for myself and don’t use it in front of our 4 year old because she of course wants to use it. I can read a regular book in front of her and she doesn’t care, but the Kindle is something different! I have let her use it a few times to do some puzzles, but I just keep it out of sight, and she rarely asks for it. She isn’t interested in reading books on it, because it is not as interesting as real books. What I have noticed is that since our daughter has experienced the real thing–drawing, painting, puzzles, etc. first, she knows that it is not as interesting as doing it on an electronic device. She gets frustrated and bored because it is not as fulfilling to “create” something on the computer as it is to do it in real life. I think parents need to lead by example. If the child sees them constantly in front of a computer, iPad, i Phone, etc, that is what the child is going to think they need to do also. If the child never sees the parent using them, then the problem is solved.

  14. This is a very interesting subject for me, as it obviously is for most of you. I do think that our kids imitate us in everything we do, and we use all sorts of devices throughout our day, why wouldn’t they be interested in doing the same? We include our kids in folding laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping, really, if you think about it, every aspect of our day (safely)… why wouldn’t we introduce them in some way to our devices? In our home we have 2 apple computers, an iPad, 2 iPhones, a flat screen TV… hmm. I don’t understand why we wouldn’t introduce our son to technology as well in a safe and appropriate manner…? It is 2013!
    Are we afraid to set appropriate boundaries in this area? I think it is exactly like everything else we talk about with RIE… set boundaries lovingly.
    I don’t believe a screen has magical powers. Honestly. I’m careful, absolutely about how much time he spends with it to be sure he is not spending too much time with a little phone vs. doing things that are more appropriate for his age and development. Too me that is more the issue. My son has an old iphone that has the SIM card taken out and is in airplane mode. He has it maybe a few times a week for 5-10 minutes tops and he loses interest anyway. He usually has it when I am on the phone, on a call I have no choice about such as with a doctor I need to speak with (one of those that calls YOU at the most annoying time, but you have to answer or you won’t hear back for another week!)
    I do think there are some advantages to our son enjoying this. He will do much better in the technological world we actually all live in! It has helped him develop amazing fine motor skills! He loves it too, being just like Mom and Dad. I don’t see that being a negative thing.
    Our son spends 99% of his time playing! He has amazing play skills, he is creative, imitative, loving, engaging, active, fun, truly wonderful.
    And yes, he is 26 months old… : )

  15. This is a great article. A couple of years ago my wife and I ditched our cable subscription because we realized that we were spending all of our downtime in front of the screen and not actually talking to each other. My brother and I grew up with very strict limits on TV (2 hours a week and only on the weekend, which meant that our weekly TV consisted of a 1 hr TV show on Friday and 2 1/2 TV shows on Sunday morning, all of which were the fun science shows, Bill Nye, Newtons Apple and Ghost Writer!!). I’m completely addicted to technology (or rather the access to the world it gives me) and both loathe and love it at the same time. We have zero intention of letting our kids have any screen access for many years.

    My question is how important it is for our kids to see us off our technology. Do I need to keep things like our iPad and phones out of sight (our phones are the only phones in the house, we don’t have a landline and probably won’t until our kids are old enough to actually need a landline). I’m hoping to eventually turn our office into a playroom for our kids (it’s a perfect space, right off the main living areas). How out of sight does technology need to be (if at all?).

    1. Our Ipad was recently stolen from our car, and I have to say it has been a nice fresh of breath air to eliminate some of the conflicts that have risen since my two and a half year old became old enough to be interested in the deivce. With that said, when it was in the house, and used on a very limited basis, my one tip to help with the common erruption that occurs when the time is up, is to have the child turn off the device themselves. I have found when the child is physically in control of turing off an electronic device themselves, is gives the child a sense of self control that is key when learning how to use these often addicting machines.

        1. We actually had 2 iPads… got rid of one because we never used it. I think moderation is the key with this issue just like anything with our kids.

  16. This is a wonderful discussion, and an incredible important one, too. As a classroom teacher, I have never made a computer available all day, every day – we would have our class laptop out for choice time once a week in my last school. We were given an iPad towards the end of my work at one school, and we used it even less because I knew so many of them had them at home. We used other technology tools that they might not have otherwise engaged with at home – like digital cameras, for example. I don’t see computers as an educational tool for the under fives – thanks for pointing out that ABC News article!

  17. David,
    Kuddos for staying away from screens the first three years! So much brain development is going on that it is important to stay clear of activities such as screens that have no developmental benefits.
    If you can I would keep your daughter away from them even longer. The first six years are so important for brain development. Your daughter will have plenty of time to learn technology, it comes to them so easily.
    We did not have an i=pad until last year, I have an 16 and 12 year old. I have yet to buy any type of video game, game boy etc.. They are both doing great and know how to use computer and get around this very technological world.
    Hope this helps.

  18. Christie-Sue says:

    As a child who was kept away from media…I always felt so left out when all my classmates talked about The Simpsons, which my parents never let me watch. I received a lot of ridicule and scorn from other kids for my ignorance on the subject. I spent a lot of my childhood very lonely and unable to connect with my peers, and though I don’t blame TV/movie restrictions, that sure didn’t help. As I grew older my parents let me watch more, but I met other kids whose parents still disallowed TV, and they seemed so awkward and out-of-touch. You’d be surprised how much of grade-school play is imitating/talking about/acting out popular TV and movies. Which is so awful! But sadly that’s the way it is. I am very torn about how to raise my daughter, who is now only 14 months. So far no TV, of course, but at some point she’s going to have to join society. It’s a tough decision. Very tough. I don’t have a suggestion or anything, but just wanted to commiserate with those other parents struggling with a difficult subject.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations