Are Tablets and Smartphones Considered Screen Time?

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Lets face it, we are well within the touch screen revolution. How many people do you know that DON’T have some kind of tablet or smartphone that their child plays on? Though we know your child isn’t necessarily playing mindless games—there are plenty of apps which incorporate “education”, one has to ask, “Are touch screens all good?” Or, should they be treated the same as television/computers and their use be limited (i.e. screen time)? To find out, Breezy Mama turned to Social Psychologist, Susan Newman, Ph.D., for answers.

Let’s start with screen times—what are the general guidelines for how much screen time (tablets and smart phones) kids should have? Should this be incorporated with TV and computer time as well? Can you break this down by age?

Screen time includes TV and computer time because it limits conversation and interaction with parents and friends—keys to development.

Before age two, “screens” teach children to expect instant gratification and decrease language development. They also over-stimulate a baby’s or young child’s brain and reduce early natural bonding with a parent. Early brain over-stimulation can lead to attention problems later.

At 29 months, adding roughly one hour of TV screen time beyond the two hours per day recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics comes a decrease in vocabulary, number knowledge, and classroom engagement when a child enters kindergarten.

If a child is on a tablet reading a book, or playing a math game—does this still count as screen time?

Definitely. It is time glued to a screen rather than interacting with siblings, peers or parents. There is a lot to learn from the tactile experience of holding a book and turning pages. Similarly, children are losing the ability to use a paper and pencil; writing the numbers, for instance, reinforces learning.

When my 8-year-old is reading a book—does it matter if it’s a “real” book, or if it’s on a Kindle? Does that still count as screen time?

It is always good to encourage children to read in whatever form. However, for many children, reading a “paper book” increases retention.

My younger child loved completing puzzles, so I purchased an app that had puzzles on it as well. Are these just as good as the old fashioned kind?

A game app just adds to time focused on a screen. There is less, possibly no chance, for a parent or others to be involved in putting the puzzle together. Doing puzzles on a tablet decreases the opportunity to teach some of the “tricks” of completing puzzles—corners, sorting by color…–but more importantly, game apps reduce time parent and child spend relating and talking to each other—essential for language development.

I’ve heard that the problem with incorporating toys with apps (for example, stuffed animals that come to life when attached to the phone), is that the child’s imagination gets stifled. What are your thoughts on this?

Apps of this nature tend to make educational toys less interesting and appealing.

Although there are some worthwhile educational apps, in general, apps (and screen time of all types) diminish young children’s creative play, social interaction, and self-regulation. This is especially true for 3- to 5-year-olds who need self-initiated play to spark their imaginations.

Apps may call themselves educational, but a little exploring shows that they aren’t that way. What should we look for in an app?

An app may be useful or educational if it reinforces skills your children acquired in school. But a so-called educational app is not necessarily a replacement for interactive or traditional learning. Probably the best advice is don’t buy an app because your child asked for it. It is a parent’s responsibility to review the app and judge its educational merits for your specific child and his or her age. Some are too advanced and can be frustrating, others too violent or too stimulating. But, all apps and “screen” usage should have time limits.

What kind of tips can you give us for “healthy” use of tablets and phones?

Parents are their children’s role models. A recent study demonstrated that parents who spend a lot of time on their devices have children who follow suit.

Parents need to set limits and stick to them by managing their own and their children’s screen time carefully to allow for family time and playtime, both critical in the development of social and other important life skills.

Remind young children how much time they can spend with their tech devices and when they need to stop. Consider installing a tool such as the 3T Technology Timer, a simple app for Android smartphones and tablets that can help parents or caregivers limit screen time for children. For example, parents can set a time limit after which the device locks and children are encouraged to play offline. Click here to download for free.

Keep in the back of your mind that children learn (and thrive) best from conversation and activities with parents and siblings if they have them, and interactions and play with peers. A tablet or television, for example, is not a replacement for engaging with parents and friends.

Anything you’d like to add?

Given the dominance of technology and its seductive nature, it is too easy to lose the emotional connection to children when everyone in the family is glued to his or her own devices for extended periods of time.

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Dr. Susan NewmanSocial psychologist, Susan Newman, Ph.D., specializes in issues impacting parents, children, and family life. She blogs about parenting for Psychology Today Magazine. Her 15 books guide parents and help improve family relationships. Among them: The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide and Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day (new edition due soon). Dr. Newman has appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, 20/20, CNN as well as other television and radio shows and in major newspapers in and out of the US. She taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey and is a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children. To learn more, visit her at or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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  1. This was very informative. Loved the points about how even just by touching a real book, a child is learning more.

  2. Love this, Alex! I was wondering if “learning” apps counted, too. Love the point about puzzles.

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