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Fear & Dread, or One Parent’s Thoughts Over a Tablet in the Hands of a 5-Year-Old

6319191649_3c063d4c72_m[1]With the holidays recently passed, many parents are coping with the a new situation. Their young children have been given a tablet or other mobile device even though, frankly, not all kids are mature enough to handle the responsibility.

Last week the WP published a column by the mother one such child. A close fried had given the writer’s 5-year-old a Fire tablet:

 We also agreed that our daughter would love it – after all, she always asked to play on Papa’s iPad whenever he visited, and she was fascinated by her cousin’s tablet. But she’d never had one of her own, and frankly, the idea of getting her one hadn’t crossed our minds.

Until now.

Suddenly, we were faced with the prospect of our kindergartner owning a tablet, on which she could play games, practice reading, or surf the Internet. On the one hand, it sounded innocent enough. After all, we want her to be comfortable with technology and keep up with her peers. There are plenty of educational apps for young kids – not to mention opportunities for her to keep busy during long road trips or stints at the doctor’s office. Plus, it was a gift from a family member, who wanted to share something special with her during the holidays. We couldn’t object to that.

The mother raises a number of concerns, including not being able to supervise what the child is seeing, the possibility of "digital addiction" (getting the kid to stop watching TV is already a hassle), the risk that the tablet could be lost or stolen, sibling bundaries, etc.

She also worries about parental controls, which is non-issue; most of the parents I have asked abut this issue feel that parental controls are a solved issue (my words, not theirs).

And then there’s this:

I’ve seen too many kids who’ve lost the art of eye contact, their attention perpetually focused on their fingertips. Who am I kidding? You can add me to that group.

I have that same problem, and since I don’t know of a solution I would suggest that kids be kept away from mobile devices – at the youngest ages if nothing else. Introducing them to tablets at a young age might help them learn coping mechanisms early, but it might also keep them from learning key interpersonal skills in the same way that handing a kid a calculator keeps them from learning math.


In any case, the one key part of the article which made me decide that I wouldn’t give a 5-year-old a tablet was this detail:

While she can’t read yet, there’s still plenty of trouble she can get into online. It’s not all photos of rainbows and dancing cats out there, after all.

She’s too young, in my opinion.

If you get a tablet for a kid, the one thing you’ll want to do is set it up so they can read on it.  You’ll want to control what they can access, but you’ll want them to have the option of reading even when all other activities are blocked.

Sure, there are apps which can teach how to read, and you can set up a Kindle app to read a book aloud, but I am concerned that the latter would be harmful to a child’s reading skills similar to the way that a calculator harms a kid’s math skills. And I don’t know enough about early learning apps to recommend one of the ones which teach kids how to read.

So in this case I think the 5-year-old is too young for her own tablet.

What do you think?

images by nooccar, Bill David Brooks,

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FSkornia January 13, 2015 um 12:03 pm

I think the irony of all this is that the tablet in question is a Kindle Fire which has some very specific features built in to allow parents to control what content is accessible on it and how much time kids can do certain activities. Out of any of the mainstream tablets out there that isn’t designed specifically for children (like Leapfrog), the Fire is probably the most suited to give to a child.

CJJ January 13, 2015 um 12:50 pm

A huge problem for parents who don’t parent. A non issue for those who do.

I do acknowledge that it is more work for the parent. My daughter has to be diligently involved in my 13 year olds cell phone/computer use. It is also a set of social skills that are just as important as the pre-digital ones. Unfortunately? perhaps.

Common Sense January 13, 2015 um 1:29 pm

My kids are adults now, but in the pre-tablet/cell phone era when they were little, we had them using our computer from about 2 years old. We had a lot of child-appropriate software that they enjoyed using but we did it with them. As they got older, they were able to use the computer by themselves, but we were in the room so we could keep tabs on them.

Most of their apps were interactive versions of books like Bernstein Bears and Little Critter. One of their favorites was Lambchop Loves Music which I think helped instill their love of music, along with a real piano and other instruments. They are all musicians in addition to other skills.

That said, we ALWAYS read a lot of books with them which is far more important than reading apps. They enjoy it a lot more when mommy or daddy is doing the reading and interaction with parents is what they love the best.

Tablets and computers are fine on a limited basis with parental controls enforced, as long as they aren’t used as a babysitter.

Go outside and play are still the best words for a parent to use.

Jon Jermey January 13, 2015 um 2:59 pm

In the pre-Internet age I used to bring a book to the dinner table so I didn’t have to interact with my parents. Many of my contemporaries managed to have family dinners in front of the television in order to avoid the compulsion to talk. Children of an earlier age could say "Shh! The radio’s on!" No doubt the children of Biblical times would have used scrolls, or clay tablets.

Children will always find some way to ignore their elders. That’s what children are for.

Paul January 13, 2015 um 3:11 pm

We let ours use our iPad and iPhone, but only to watch peppa pig videos on the phone, and Reading Rainbow on the iPad. Luckily she hasn’t figured out how to use the rest of it yet (and we supervise when using the iPad).

Juli Monroe January 13, 2015 um 3:14 pm

My son loved his GameBoy and spend many hours with his nose buried in games. However, some of those hours were spent walking endlessly around the block with his best friend. He’s never been overweight, is still active and seems to interact well with others. A lot of it depends on the kid. He wasn’t an enthusiastic reader when he was small, but he played lots of text-based RPGs on his Gameboy, so I shrugged and said, "At least he’s reading something." Now he’s a philosophy and psychology major, and he reads and writes a lot for those classes. I think he’s turned out okay.

Rob Siders January 13, 2015 um 3:19 pm

The day I got my first iPad, in December 2010, I handed it to my son who’d just turned two a few weeks before. He started using immediately. He just "got" it. He’d wake from a nap and say "iPad." It was his first computer. He was a self-taught reader by the time he turned three. He’s six now and spent four weeks in Kindergarten last Fall before moving to first grade. There might be some connection there, but I couldn’t say whether it’s correlation or causation. He makes eye contact and conversation just fine (my God, son, all the talking !). He also likes basketball and soccer and Lego and learning to play guitar and experiments with a circuit set. If you ask him what he likes better, the iPad or his books, he says it’s his books.

My point: everyone’s mileage will vary.

I won’t begrudge another parent’s choices or fears about tech and gadgets. I get it and share many of them. It does, however, seem hasty to make the decision to return the device before exploring and figuring out what limits and boundaries the child can handle. Yes, there are times when my boy needs to have device-time dialed back. But he gets over it quickly and turns to the myriad other activities available to him… including reading books.

carmen webster buxton January 13, 2015 um 3:55 pm

When my kids were little (two decades ago!), there were two situations I would totally have given in to the tablet urge: car trips and eating in restaurants. I love ebook convenience for me, but as far as reading picture books to them, or letting them read alone, I would have stuck with paper books. But in a restaurant or in a car trip, it’s hard to find something that holds their attention without requiring you to dedicate yourselves to them. In the car, especailly, they are strapped in my themselves. I would not have hesitated to give a 5-year-old a Kindle Fire on 5-hour trip to the beach.

Rikker98110 January 14, 2015 um 2:42 pm

Parental control is the key.

Maybe when a child is 5 is a good time to start teaching them that technology, while available 24/7, has a time and a place.

Maybe 5 is a good time to start teaching them to limit their time of being distracted away from the real world of people and nature.

Setting limits and getting involved, and staying involved, in a child’s cyber life needs to start as soon as they have a cyber life.

We teach kids how to act, I hope, in all areas of their lives (diet, play, speech,etc.) so why stop at the technology line?

Rebecca Allen January 14, 2015 um 8:37 pm

I got an iPad right around when the first one came out. I had previously bought some flavor of netbook (actually, two in a row), trying to come up with a better travel computer solution. At the time, my children were 1ish and 4ish. Neither one was talking and neither one would be talking for another year; they both have autism spectrum disorders. Honestly, we weren’t really entirely sure what was going on inside my older child’s brain, other than that he moved compulsively. And forget eye contact; neither my husband or I does normal eye contact, altho I fake it much better than he does. It is unsurprising that my children don’t either. And they’ve got cousins and other relatives with autism diagnoses. Fine motor skills delays would have prevented them from the usual computer option (neither would learn to use a mouse for a long time and they still aren’t great with them). But boy, when that iPad showed up, I lost it to my son. So I went and bought him one, which freed mine up for my daughter. We were all (and I mean my husband, his extended family, and a whole string of therapists) were really, really excited to watch the kids on the iPads. My daughter learned to actually point using the damn thing, when the OT was despairing of ever teaching her to do so. And it became very clear, very quickly, that there was a lot of stuff going on in my son’s head.

I think people worry way too much about screen time. However, the way we do things in this country (as in many others) is we basically let parents decide for their own family, subject to the parents freaking out the larger community. In our case, our kids' use of iPads not only did not lead to therapist and teacher condemnation; we were regularly consulted by therapists and others on which apps had been most successful at getting and keeping our kids' attention, so they could be recommended to other children with related developmental issues.

David Haywood Young January 15, 2015 um 6:02 am

Bollocks. IMNSHO, which is generally considered to be mere noise, but still.

We gave our daughter a Kindle Fire for Christmas two years ago, when she was three. In general we do not restrict her access to information, and there are no taboo subjects in our home, but…we also installed the Kindle Free Time app.

She’s in a walled garden of "age-appropriate" material. Books, games, videos. It works very well. FWIW we didn’t do that in order to restrict her access to anything–we did it because of the simplified navigation.

Of course, now that she’s five, she has her own desktop computer too. With no walled garden. And she’s fine. Though maybe being able to go outside in Alaska helps guard against the chance that she’ll fall into a digital world and never come out? {8′>

Seriously: we’ve had no problems whatsoever with this. Not even a hint.


David Haywood Young January 15, 2015 um 11:02 am

Huh. A previous comment appears to have been either deleted or marked as spam. A test: was it because of the word "bollocks"?

Nate Hoffelder January 15, 2015 um 11:29 am

That’s weird. I can see the comment:

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