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I recently bought an iPad primarily for my 3-year-old daughter. I put nothing on it but educational apps and children's books. No YouTube, no Internet, no (non-educational) games. I've decided to let her use it as much as she wants, for now, and see how it goes. That was a few weeks ago.

So far she's been using the iPad maybe 2 to 5 hours each day. She still enjoys other activities -- playing outside, playing with dolls and blocks, interacting with friends, being read to, etc. And I think she might be learning a thing or two from the apps. Still, several hours a day seems like a lot. How do I know if it's too much?

I've searched the web, and there's lots of info on limiting TV time and video games, but I can't find any recommendations on limiting use if it's only educational games.

Relevant: Should I let my 3 year old play educational games on my iPhone?

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The recommendations aren't based on the type of content but rather the type of activity. In other words, the issue is the activity...not the content. –  DA01 Apr 12 '12 at 2:25
When you say "the" recommendations, whose are you referring to? And surely the content is important... Isn't an hour spent playing an educational video game better than an hour spent with the Super Mario Brothers? –  vocaro Apr 12 '12 at 6:28
The recommendations are most of them...so when you see a study/recommendation about how long to watch TV, for example, it's about the how long it's OK to stare at a screen while sitting on a couch. Whether it's Sesame Street or Spongebob is somewhat irrelevant. Another example: Baby Einstein videos...it's been shown that they are no worse nor no better than any other television. Showing a kid that is as bad/good for them as showing them MTV. –  DA01 Apr 12 '12 at 13:23

8 Answers 8

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The American Association of Pediatrics suggests 1-2 hours of all screen time--regardless of content. The following link sites some of the effects it can have: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/children-and-tv/MY00522

Also, beginning more than 1-2 hours of screen time at age 3 makes it more difficult to limit it when they are older-as it becomes something they are used to doing for 3 hours a day (to pick a random amount of time) and don't necessarily know how or want to find a way to occupy themselves after school, for instance if they get used to it.

Another study to read: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100706161759.htm Although it is done on older children, habits are formed from an early age... and continue into adulthood. So, it is better to be wary than to find out in 3rd grade that had you done something differently it might be different now. Also, as one of the studies cited states: model good screen habits-don't spend too much time watching TV/playing video games either... that way as they grow up, they don't expect the amount of time to increase.

I found one more link which specifically addresses tv, video games of educational varieties in toddlers (which, imho is closer to preschoolers than grade 5-but the grade 5 studies show what can happen if it continues)... http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/health/19babies.html This study also says to limit it. Note that the video industry says that a parent is the best judge... of course, they might just be biased (wanting parents $$?).

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I thought I'd expand my comment into an answer:

Whether or not media is considered educational is a bit of a red herring. If a kid is going to watch TV or play a game, yes, it might as well be educational, but the fact that it is educational isn't going to change whether or not it's a good idea to be doing that activity for extended periods of time.

The concern is that you don't want to assume "It's OK" because it's educational. 5 hours of education TV is as good/bad for a child as 5 hours of Nickelodeon. It's the activity (or, with TV, the lack thereof) that is the concern. Sitting for 5 hours doing a passive activity is the concern...not specifically what they are watching.

To be fair, video games aren't the same as TV. As they aren't mentally passive. They are typically physically passive, but at least the brain is firing synapses when playing a video game.

I can't tell you how many hours a 3 year old should play on an iPad. I'd personally keep it to an hour a day at most, but that's just based on my personal opinion. And there are plenty of media options on an iPad that I think one could argue are not exactly the same thing as video game...such as ebooks or music, so it's a complicated device to form an analysis on, IMHO.

My main point, though, is just don't assume it's all OK just because the games are labeled 'educational'.

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Thanks for your answer, but without any citations, I can't accept your claims that content is irrelevant. A quick Google search reveals studies showing that educational TV has demonstrable benefits (nytimes.com/1995/05/31/us/…). Also, my question was about educational games, not TV. As long as the games truly are educational (and not just labeled as such), and the child is getting exercise and other forms of activity, I don't see why a one-hour limit is needed. –  vocaro Apr 12 '12 at 18:52
I'm not saying there aren't benefits to learning, but that's a different topic than "how much time should a child be doing activity X". I agree that there is a difference between TV and games, but the point remains the same. Violent shooting games have shown to improve skillsets just as learning the alphabet learning games do. The concerns of it being 'bad' for a child is less to do with the content, more to do with the type of activity (in this case, video games). As for 1-hour limit, as I stated, that's purely my own personal opinion not based on any particular science. –  DA01 Apr 12 '12 at 19:02
Regarding the study you linked to, note that it is comparing two types of TV, not how much TV is too much. A half hour of Sesame is better than a half hour of TMNT or the like. But the question is really are 4 hours of Sesame street better than a half hour? –  DA01 Apr 12 '12 at 19:04

I agree that once you get past a certain point, content is irrelevant and that 5 hours of edu games has less to do with the content and everything to do with the lack of varied activity for a 3 yr old. i think even 2 hrs at a crack is too long, and i'm a pretty big tech advocate.

Now here's something that hasn't been mentioned... I'll bet that if she's played these games that much, that she's no longer playing the game, but has memorized the patterns. I'll bet the games are stale and she's just going thru the motions anymore. You'll be able to tell by watching her for just a couple of minutes whether or not this is the case.

From the range that you've given, i would recommend that you develop a daily routine of some sort, and slide it in there for an 60-90, 1-2x/day.

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Toddlers should not spend much time behind a screen. IMHO the use of media is far more relevant than the content of the media, particularly if the time is quite limited. The very most I would consider is an hour a day, and I would not let it be at one sitting.

I've searched the web, and there's lots of info on limiting TV time and video games, but I can't find any recommendations on limiting use if it's only educational games.

That should tell you something. The difference between "educational" media and regular media is marginal compared to the difference between real life and any media.

I'm not recommending that you let your toddler spend even 5 minutes a day on Grand Theft Auto, but don't rationalize multiple hours a day with the electronic baby sitter because the content is "educational."

Get the kid a puppy. Find a good playground. Find other kids his age and have play dates. Get Lincoln Logs or Knex. Read to your kid. Get dolls or action figures. You get the point ... you want active rather than passive amusement.

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Just a question, why is Knex a significantly higher quality tool for learning creativity than Minecraft? Why is a GI Joe a better tool for storytelling than a Lego game? Why is a game considered passive amusement, when they literally don't work without active engagement? –  deworde Jul 3 '14 at 10:21
I have no idea whether Minecraft is or is not more effective in the abstract. My issue is that the kid interact with actual objects and/or people rather than with the screen. They will have plenty of time behind the screen when they are adults and work for a living. –  tomjedrz Jul 15 '14 at 0:53

I've never seen anybody ask how much time is too much time spent reading, drawing, putting together puzzles, or playing board games. Yet as I see it, reading on a tablet is just like reading a book whose pages can never get ripped; drawing on a tablet is like fingerpainting that my daughter can do no matter what she is wearing; playing puzzles on a tablet is like putting together puzzles without the ability to lose pieces or mix them up with those of other puzzles; playing a game on a tablet is just like playing a real game but without having to worry about remembering the rules or keeping the pieces out of the baby's reach.

As for television, I'm OK with reasonably educational shows. If your child has to sit in a chair listening to talking for 5 hours a day, does it matter if it's in a school listening to a teacher versus in your living room listening to the TV? Of course "school" for toddlers is generally a lot more engaging than the lecture-style classes of older kids, but it's generally not as educational either.

I prefer human interaction to watching TV, but there's no way I can compete educationally. For example, I can tell my daughter "Remember, look both ways before crossing the street!", but on TV they can write a catchy song, choreograph a dance, make a skit with props and dialog, and then repeat it 10 times a day all month long.

I don't like plopping my kids in front of the TV all day, but other people in their lives do and honestly, I can't say that it seems detrimental to their mental development. When my 2-year-old starts leading an imaginary marching band, talking like a pirate, holding a toilet paper tube up to her eye and calling it a "spyglass", or saying something in Spanish, I know it's because she learned it on TV. There's just no way I would even think to teach her all that stuff.

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The world is changing. I think the advice on how much is too much is outdated. Screen time isn't what it used to be. I have a feeling my two year old will type his name before he writes it. I think he will learn to use a mouse or a touch screen before crayons. Even Leapfrog toys are having a hard time competing with IPads. An IPad is more engaging and interactive than listening to a musical toy or a stuffed dog that sings and dances. While there is nothing that compares to a wooden puzzle and a real book, I don't think there is anything wrong with a toddler growing up in the very real and changing technological world.

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I think with any media product, its important to set up some boundaries as far as usage goes. IMHO, educational games would get a little more leeway, but still should have boundaries. Its a good opportunity to set some good habits for your child, let her start to learn the importance of self governing or at least, that limits do exist. This lesson can be extrapolated to many different things, TV, internet access, XBOX, Iphone etc etc.

Decide what is a good limit and apply that in a firm, loving consistent manner.

Good luck.

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It would be better if your 3-year-old daughter will play with real toys like dolls or bricks more time than with iPad. She has to develop her cognitive ability, logic and knowledge about real world.

So far she's been using the iPad maybe 2 to 5 hours each day.

It is too much. 1 hour a day would be enough.

there's lots of info on limiting TV time and video games

iPad is almost the same as video game.

Also read book: “Kindergarten Is Too Late” by Masaru Ibuka

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