National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Parenting in the Tablet World

Advice for Navigating Technology With Children

BY Thomas L. McDonald

July 27-Aug. 9, 2014 Issue | Posted 7/26/14 at 5:21 AM


Tablets are one of the fastest-growing markets in technology, doubling in a single year, with more than 1 million applications (apps) for Apple devices alone.

What began as a flashy new toy for early adopters has become a mobile hub for work, media and entertainment.
And with that growing ubiquity comes the inevitable trickle-down effect, as the device passes from parents to children. At the same time, they’re finding a place in everything from hospitals to preschools.

The numbers themselves are startling. Common Sense Media’s “Children’s Media Use in America” report for 2013 showed a fivefold increase over two years in tablet ownership among families with children age 8 and under.

Between 2011 and 2013, those families went from 8% owning tablets to 40%. Factor in smartphones, and the increase goes from 52% (2011) to 75% (2013). It is one of the fastest penetrations of new technology into the household in U.S. history.

Seventy-two percent of all children age 8 and under have consumed media (games, videos, music, books and apps) on a mobile device, which is up from 38% in 2011. Indeed, use of the devices by children under age 2 has climbed from 10% to 38% and continues to climb. Of these users, 17% use the devices at least once per day, and average use among children has climbed from five minutes a day to 15 minutes.

Lower-income children are keeping pace with these changes, with tablet ownership going from 2% to 20% and tablet use rising from to 22% to 65% in the same period.

At the same time, use of conventional media (such as DVDs, TV and cable) has dropped, with some of that time shifted to the tablets. In one of the most startling findings, total screen use (encompassing tablets, TV, computer, etc.) is down by 21 minutes a day.

Even very young children take to touch devices with alarming ease. The design itself is highly intuitive, and toddlers are interacting with tablets before they’ve even developed the motor skills to interact with the larger world.

Research on what all this means is still in the very early stages. We simply do not have the data to say what the developmental effects are, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any expert who thinks monitored, well-considered, limited use of the devices is harmful.

Indeed, all the evidence thus far points to proper use of the devices being a boon for children, who perform more complex tasks and problem solving with a higher level of engagement due to the combination of tactile control and instantaneous feedback.

One study found that children with autism spectrum disorders who used iPads were responding better to treatment due to the audio-visual feedback the tablets provided. Adding the tablet later in the teaching process turned out to be less effective, suggesting that early mastery of the technology is better.

A counterpoint to this are unsubstantiated reports of “iPad addiction” in children, loss of motor skills, declining ability to socialize, weight gain and even repetitive motion injuries. Headlines such as “Infants ‘Unable to Use Toy Building Blocks’ Due to iPad Addiction” grab attention, but the articles themselves are never backed up with hard facts.
What people are seeing is mastery of technology coinciding with a decline in motor skills such as handwriting (which few schools teach any longer).

Indeed, improper use of any electronic device can lead to poor health and weight gain, poor socializing and repetitive motion injuries. Tablets are not unique in this way, and the key factor in these problems is not mere use, but excessive use.

It’s important to remember that the tablet is merely a new form of a familiar technology: the computer. It functions in almost all the same ways as a computer by using hardware to run software and process data. What it changes is the form factor. It breaks loose from the confines of the desktop or laptop, compresses it to the size and shape of a pad of paper and places all that computing power in the hand.

The second major innovation is one of control. Computers are controlled by proxy: The mouse stands in for the hand, placing the user one move from the device itself. Tablets harness the potential of touch controls so that the people are their own controllers. If you can point and tap, you can use a tablet.

The appeal for this to children is obvious, and they are taking to it like ducks to water. There is no control barrier between a toddler and an eBook. To turn a page, she merely taps. This is creating a new and amusing sight in some households, as toddlers tap a traditional magazine page and wait for something to happen. From an early age, their expectations of how they interact with media and the world are changing.

Some parents might find this endearing and others horrifying, but this is the new world, and it is not going away just because we wish it.

A parent may choose not to introduce a tablet into the home or allow a child to use one. While that’s a perfectly reasonable decision, it does nothing to alter or even address a future filled with the devices.

Our children will have no choice but to eventually navigate this world, and if they do it sooner rather than later, the parent can be a more effective guide.

Thomas L. McDonald is an authority on new media,

technology and entertainment,

as well as being a catechist.

He blogs at



When and How to Let Your Kids Use Tablets

A quick Internet search will turn up all manner of advice on how early and much to let your kids have access to a tablet. These range from “never” to “after preschool” to “as soon as possible,” all of which ignore the differences among children.

Parents must judge the needs and development of each child, the cost vs. the benefit of allowing access and the appropriate amount of time. There is no one-size-fits-all rule.

Simply clocking “screen time” really isn’t rational where a tablet is concerned. It’s possible (and advisable) to say a child gets four hours of video game time a week, but a tablet is more than just games. The child may be drawing, writing, learning a new language, solving puzzles, reading a book checked out from the library, listening to music or watching a television show. “Screen time” loses all meaning here.

For this reason, parents need to communicate with their kids and make sure they know what the device is being used for at any given time. A simple rule about never opening Netflix without permission, for example, or a scheduled period of pure game time are some ideas for managing usage. Simply saying “one hour a day of iPad use” will most likely mean one hour of games, whereas a more flexible approach to timing will encourage kids to harness the creative and educational potentials of the device.

Some suggest a 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This is a rather arbitrary criterion, but it addresses a reasonable concern. Even when reading a book on a device, kids should be encouraged to look away and rest their eyes for a while. They should also be introduced to brightness settings and not use bright devices in dark rooms or late at night.

All location services should be disabled for any device used by a child. Location services tag things like photos and messages with the precise origin point, meaning your house can be identified from a shared picture.
Content, of course, is an issue. Pornography and other mature content can only come in the device via a Web browser or (on non-Apple devices) an app. Browsers can be disabled or content-filtered.

No child should ever have access to the password for the device’s account, and parents may even want to pass-code protect the entire device in order to maintain more control over its usage.

Most devices have parental controls. On an iPad, for example, the “Restrictions” setting (under the “General” menu) allows a parent to turn off certain applications (such as Web browsers and in-app purchases) and to lock out movies, TV shows, apps, music and websites based on ratings criteria, such as no movies over a PG or PG-13 rating. This feature is pass-code protected so kids can’t switch it back on. In addition, there are third-party, subscription-based products like Mobicip and Zoodles for parents to control access across all mobile devices.

Choose what goes on a device with care. Load it with education apps, prayer apps, books, music, writing and drawing programs and other useful applications.

Segregate games in game folders in order to limit game use, and try to find games of quality or that challenge kids to use creative thinking. Remember that this isn’t just a giant platform for “Angry Birds” (which actually provides a lesson in physics), but a new kind of window into a world of wonder and beauty.

— Thomas L. McDonald