Q We allowed our two elder kids (eight and six) to buy tablets to play games and watch cartoons. We agreed that they could spend ½ an hour each day on them. The problem is that they have become completely obsessed with the tablets, to the point that they don't want to go outside; they don't want to play and they've lost their imaginations and become more aggressive. I don't feel that removing the devices entirely is helpful or fair to them, as they need to be familiar with technology because that's the way the world is moving… so what should we do?
David replies: I make no secret of my view that young children have no need of tablets or other electronic devices. While I can understand your concern that your children may be at a disadvantage if they don't have some access to technology at their age, I don't share it. About 10 years ago, the Nintendo DS was all the rage. Parents buying them for their children never considered that they were preparing their child for a future in technology. They'd have admitted they were buying it for their child's entertainment. Similarly, allowing your child to watch cartoons on TV is not about creating technological readiness: it too is about entertaining your child. In the same way, my view of getting a tablet for a child (or letting them buy their own) is that it is entirely about entertainment.
Most parents who let six- and eight-year-olds use tablets appreciate the fact that it engages their child, totally, such that their child places no demands on them while they are using the tablet. Adults moving into a career, or training, in software engineering, coding and other technological fields will not need a base in computer gaming and consumption of online media. No pre-teen child needs to know how to swipe a screen in order to be able to survive in the world.
So I can see no upside - in terms of your children's development - that accrues from having access to technology. However, as you describe, there is a big downside: your children are obsessed with their tablets, reluctant to go outside, less imaginative and more aggressive since you introduced them to the family.
Your experience with your older children mirrors what the research tells us about children's use of technology and the outcome of that use. There is plenty of research that documents the rise in obesity in children and the link with increased sedentary behaviours such as watching screens is often cited as a contributory factor.
There is research evidence that use of technology negatively affects children's own moods and their ability to be aware of, and to read, the emotions of others.
Other research has found that children's brains release dopamine when they watch TV or play computer games; this stimulates children. However, with too much screen time, children can become desensitised so that they can't engage in things like reading books because it doesn't give the same stimulating effect.
The amount of conflict in families over technology use is also significant. Even from my own clinical experience working with children, teenagers and families, technology has become one of the primary sources of conflict leading to rows and dissatisfaction amongst parents and their children.
So, my advice to you is to ditch the tablets. Your children don't need them. They may want them, but that is different from needing them. It is always good for parents to meet children's needs, but not always good to simply accede to their desires.
If you scrap the tablets, you will probably get a big protest from your older two children, for a short while. This might feel hard to weather. But if you are understanding of their upset while remaining steadfast about creating a technology-free zone in your home, they will soon revert to their pre-tablet ways. They'll be more likely to read, to get outdoors, to play with toys and to play with each other.
They'll be back doing what is best for children's development: moving, touching, experiencing, connecting with other humans and being exposed to nature. Children don't need tablets - but they do need real life.