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  • Only 43% of parents said they had some sort of rule about their child’s use of tablets. About 10% did not allow their child to ever use tablets. Tweet This
  • At 4 ½ years old, the 10% of children whose parents did not allow them to use tablets at all reported lower levels of problematic media use. Tweet This
  • Tablet use is often an unplanned part of our children’s technological diets.  Tweet This

In the last decade, parenting has taken on a new dimension—technology. Technology has become a normal part childhood, and many parents feel the pressure of helping their children develop a healthy relationship with screens. 

Technology can be both a positive and negative part of every child’s life. FaceTime helps children connect with distant family members. Educational TV shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood help children prepare for school and practice emotional skills. But technology can also keep children from getting enough sleep, time outside, or limit their other meaningful social interactions. 

The importance of parents’ role in guiding children in their technology use cannot be understated. During the early years of a child’s life, an important and effective tool for parents is what researchers call restrictive mediation. This is when parents set up rules, or guidelines, about when, how much, and what type of technology their child can use. 

For example, when parents set rules limiting the amount of time young children can watch TV, or if a parent makes a rule that says a child can only watch TV after preschool, they are practicing restrictive mediation. When used appropriately, these rules act as guardrails that shape a child's developing relationship with technology in a positive way. 

There are a lot of different types of rules parents can create, and many parents wonder what is the most effective. So, my colleagues and I set out to understand what types of rules parents of young children commonly have around their children’s technology use, and how different rules affect children’s relationship with that technology. Specifically, we looked at children's problematic media use—defined as early signs of media dependency—as our measure of children’s relationship with technology. 

For this study, which we published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, we asked 435 parents of you children what rules they had regarding their child’s TV and tablet use. We started tracking when the children were 2½ years old, and then followed up again when the children were 3½ and 4½, to measure children’s levels of problematic media use. 

We found that approximately 64% of parents said they had some sort of rule about their child’s use of TV. The most common rule the parents used was to only allow 1 hour or less of TV time a day (22.07% of parents). Almost all the children in our study were allowed to watch TV (99.08%)

In contrast, only around 43% of parents said they had some sort of rule about their child’s use of tablets (handheld devices like iPads). Interestingly, only about 10% of parents said that they did not allow their child to ever use tablets. 

When we looked at how these rules related to children’s problematic media use over time, what we found was quite compelling. Surprisingly, none of the rules were found to change the children’s problematic media use one year later, when children were 3½ years old. One year later, at 4½, rules surrounding TV use were still not related to children’s problematic media use. But, at 4½ years old, the 10% of children whose parents did not allow them to use tablets at all reported lower levels of problematic media use. 

So, what does this all mean? Here are three key takeaways from this study to help parents think about technology and their young children. 

1. Sometimes it takes a while to reap the rewards of guiding children’s technology use.

Children like TV. They like tablets. They are usually upset when you say “no” and don’t let them watch another episode of Paw Patrol or play games on your smartphone. It can be hard in the moment. But remember that research suggests there are some significant payouts down the road. Standing your ground on media rules might be difficult when they are 2½. But it will all be worth it when, your kids are not as attached to media when they get older, while you will have developed a habit of setting healthy limits.

2. Rules about TV do matter.

It can be tempting to look at our findings and think “why am I fighting with my child about TV when it doesn’t matter?” But TV rules do matter. It's just that most parents have rules about when, how much, or what kind of TV their children can watch. This means that in our analyses, there is a good chance “we didn’t find anything” because most parents are already doing something – and that something is helping children. So, when your toddler gets upset when it is time to turn off My Little Pony, remember, this does matter and will benefit your child long-term. 

3. Don’t forget tablets.

Our analyses suggested that the children whose parents did not let them use tablets at 2½ had a better relationship with technology at 4½ compared to the children whose parents didn’t have any rules about tablets. 

There is some nuance here that is important to keep in mind. First, remember that most parents did not have any rules about tablet use, even though many children use tablets on a regular basis. This is likely because tablets are so easy to overlook. We reach for them when our child is crying in the car or at the grocery store, or as a quick distraction when we need just five minutes to get dressed. In short, tablet use is often an unplanned part of our children’s technological diets. 

It makes sense, then, that the children whose parent said “nope” to tablets across the board had a better relationship with media at age 4½. These were the children whose parents were being purposeful about tablet use. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that your child can’t use tablets, but it does suggest it is important to use tablets with purpose. This can take a few forms. For example, do you find that you are always reaching for your child’s tablet to buy you some time to make breakfast? Make that the planned time when your child can use their tablet, and then say “no” the rest of the day. 

Do you find you are always reaching for your phone to distract your child in public? Try setting a limit for how many times a day your child can use a tablet. This might help you not reach for a tablet every time (but still have it as an option in the real-deal meltdown emergencies that are sure to come). 

Being purposeful about how and when your child uses technology matters. This means having a plan that allows you to use tablets when you need them, and helps you be in control of your child’s technology use. It might not feel like it now, but with good rules, you can help your child foster a healthy relationship with technology ways that may pay strong dividends down the road. 

Jane Shawcroft is a PhD student in the Communication program at University of California, Davis. She studies how we can leverage media and technology for the physical, social, and emotional health of children, teenagers, and families.