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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 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'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
Have you considered this from a standpoint not of trying to eliminate time spent doing something the kids enjoy, but rather how to get them to spend time on other things they enjoy too in addition to just the ipad? I don't see how the former is useful in and of itself. – R.. Feb 20 at 6:22
Please avoid extended discussions in comments. That's what chat is for. – anongoodnurse Feb 20 at 18:01

14 Answers 14

up vote 18 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:

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: 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)... 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 (…). 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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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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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

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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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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I think you are missing a lot here. Drawing on a tablet is like fingerpainting that doesn't involve learning about real materials, mixing colors, cleaning up after oneself, trying out what different objects can be used to paint with, the tactile experience of putting one's hands in a gooey substance, creating a physical object, understanding what not to do to avoid the paper ripping or the paint spilling... Similarly a child doing a puzzle on a tablet is (with the games I know) not rotating the pieces or turning them over, not having to judge exactly how precisely and how hard to place them... – jwg Feb 20 at 13:54
@jwg: Nobody said they're equivalent; I was just pointing out that there are benefits rather than just drawbacks. Actual fingerpainting is a rare treat because it consumes paint (and paper), requires constant supervision, and entails lots of cleanup. Actual jigsaw puzzles last about 10 minutes in my house before pieces get lost or eaten. These are activities my kids would get to do a few times a year if done in real life, while they can do them for eight hours a day on a tablet. – Gabe Feb 20 at 15:18
That's a bit like saying "If I tried to go out and meet a partner I would only meet a couple of people in a year whom I liked and who liked me. By staying at home watching pornography I can enjoy sex all day every day!" – jwg Feb 20 at 15:51
@jwg: To keep things more "family friendly", let's just say that simulated activities are not as good as real activities, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use the simulator as much as you want. Does anybody think that pilots should limit their time on a flight simulator because it's not as good as flying a real jet? – Gabe Feb 20 at 16:01
does anyone think that watching pornography all the time won't be detrimental to getting a real boyfriend or girlfriend? – jwg Mar 9 at 9:21

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 know technology is a great way to get some space from the children to get on with things, however we have a strict rule about no-(screen)-technology with our children (6 and 3). It's labor-intensive parenting, that's for sure, no computers, TV etc. I believe that use of media does not impact their developing brains in the way that personal connection, nature, art etc. does. If you try to lessen the time your younger child spends on the i-pad, you will have to be creative to make sure s/he doesn't feel deprived (seeing no limits for the older child), and think of fun alternatives. Try puzzles, musical instruments, audio books on CDs, painting etc.

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Am I right to be concerned?

I would say yes, most definitely. Kids can easily become lost in games for hours on end (I should know, I was one of them). I think my parents were thankful they had something to keep me occupied while they did.. whatever it was that they did while I was in my room. It was also something they could take away from me when I was in trouble.

I'm wondering what time periods parents are seeing their kids using ipads for??

Our daughter (almost 6 years old) gets about an hour block of screen time. With your youngest, I'd say that should be supervised time. This gives you the chance to interact and ask/answer questions. If you're looking for unsupervised time, I would recommend no more than 30 minutes. That's a decent enough time frame for you to accomplish whatever task (hopefully :) ) that you need to get done.

Establish the rules up front! Kiddos love structure (mine almost to a fault!) and will abide by the rules if you are consistent following through. We will say "You have 30 minutes until dinner is ready." On the weekends when outside play is out of the question, we'll ask her "Can you play on the computer while we clean the house? Then we can play something with you." This gives her something else to look forward to while not getting too hooked on the computer.

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Definitely establish consistency and rules. It's a lot harder to complain about computer time ending when you don't have any reason to expect more. Not to say this will eliminate whining and begging, but it should keep it at a tolerable level :) – Erica Feb 19 at 18:50

Screen time is something that should be limited for all children; at 0-2, it should be minimal or zero, as it does not support brain development in the same way that other kinds of (active) play do. It's similar to how you might learn a school subject.

Method 1: Listen to a lecture, with an overhead/projector showing some slides.

Method 2: Listen to a shorter lecture, then answer questions about the subject afterwards.

Method 3: Listen to a still shorter lecture, answer a few questions, and then practice the activity for the same amount of time or more.

I think it would be easy to agree that method 3 is the best way to learn a new concept (listen, repeat, do). That's because just listening (and watching - anything passive) doesn't engage the brain in the same way that actively participating does. Completely cooperative learning is even better: you retain the memory of how to do things better.

The same applies to your child. They're learning how to do things (physical, mental, speech, etc.), and they learn best by doing. Passive content (like TV or videos on an iPad) are the worst way to do that; active content on an iPad is better, but it only can teach a limited set of skills, and unless your child is old enough to type isn't engaging them in conversation certainly. They need to be learning multiple things at once as much as possible - speech, vocabulary/grammar, emotional/social skills, motor skills. It's hard to get that from a screen; and this doesn't change as they get older (at least until a lot older). I would suggest that 2,3,6 year olds should all have the same amount of screen time per day, and so does the AAP: 1 to 2 hours per day (or less).

We have two children - almost 2 and 3.5 - and while we can't completely eliminate the almost-2 year old's screen time, we limit it to very little, probably an hour or two per week, and typically only when the older one is having screen time on the television.

For the older one, we allow no more than an hour a day, and do this largely on the iPad (which is his preference). He has 20 to 30 minutes up to twice a day (Before school and after dinner). We encourage him to use it on the toilet for one of those periods, initially as an incentive to try to poop when he was having trouble, but now as a way to allow him to be alone without his younger brother bothering him (they share a room, so it's very hard to get this alone time otherwise). He's responsible for setting a timer (we showed him how to use the iPad timer) and stopping when the timer goes off. He's not all that well behaved about stopping, but that's always difficult for children that age, and a good opportunity to work on it.

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The Mayo Clinic says too much screen time is too much screen time, regardless of the device, the content, or the level of interaction.

Our household has a "scale" of electronics time, depending on age. As the kid gets older, their time limits are tied somewhat to responsibilities -- they do their chores to earn additional time (privilege). There is also usage associated with homework (our elementary and middle schools have Chromebooks for each students, and often assignments must be done online), which we treat separately from their free time (which is always, so far, spent on games with little or no educational value, by their own choice).

Every single one of them thinks that my restrictions are terribly unfair and prevent them from ANY FUN AT ALL. They talk about their friends who have Kindle Fires and laptops in their room and can play as much as they want (which, since I know many of their parents, I highly doubt). They sneak the tablet or laptop into their own room to play. They throw tantrums, they whine, they beg, they attempt bribery. My daughter recently cited insufficient technology time as the primary cause of her moodiness ("it's not because I'm a tween, it's because I don't get to play computer games for hours").

BUT, if I let them, my kids play on the tablet for hours at a stretch and only stop once they get very hungry and/or tired. They even take it into the bathroom. They watch over a sibling's shoulder while another child plays. Once the tablet runs out of power (or it's bedtime, or something other obligation interrupts) -- they are incredibly cranky and irritable. They're obviously not able to self-regulate (even the older ones), and so I'm completely satisfied with the rules we've established.

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To be fair, without any extra information, I would agree that limiting a middle school child to only 15 minutes a day of electronics time is sort of ridiculous. In addition, if you are allowing them to watch TV apart from those 15 minutes a day, I would argue you're setting a double standard based purely on personal interest, since generally, studies seem to show more negative effects of television, than of other, interactive forms of electronic media. – Waterseas Feb 19 at 21:39
We tend to watch TV as a family (and talk about the shows, so it's more interactive and social than immersive), or shows they watch independently count as electronics time (she can earn extra time to get about an hour). Most weeknights, between homework, activities, dinner, and chores, there really isn't significant "spare" time to be had anyway and she spends a lot of it reading. – Erica Feb 19 at 22:04
Restricting children, especially as old as middle schoolers at all on screen time can be negative to their motivation to pursue tech fields. For example, programmers typically need to spend at least several hours per day online, and their motivation is stifled by restriction. Also, general knowledge/news can only be obtained from the internet: podcasts, blogs, videos, and articles on subjects of interest in addition to educational websites can be very beneficial. – bjb568 Feb 19 at 22:19
She's actually explicitly allowed to (and often does) claim Scratch and Codecademy as "homework". Would love to see research about screen time influence on tech choices; perhaps consider another Question for that? – Erica Feb 19 at 22:23
@bjb568 you're so right. I was always getting restricted to a very limited time, and if it wasn't for my insistence and my parents not having nerves to fight with me, I wouldn't be a reverse engineer now. I strongly believe that if the child is smart enough to learn technology and not simply lose time with activities like e.g. chatting (which is a perfectly fine social activity, as long as it's not the only one), he/she should spend as much time as allowed by the body. – AcidShout Feb 19 at 23:37

Back in my times I was out 24/7 and when I got back home I was too tired and went to bed... I don't even remember eating food, hell all I remember is hide and seek, tag and all other fun stuff we did back in my time!

Ipad? Kids? That is a bad combination, have them go out more often. It's more healthy for them to be fighting each other than to play on their IPads. The more time they spend on their Ipads and computers the more attached they become and the more physical activity they will miss out on.

Bottom line, it's a health issue and honestly, I grew up without a computer, didn't get into computers until I was 14ish. Played games 24/7 and I regret it, if you want your kids to thank you when they grow up and wisen up, you will make them go out more often. Not having an Ipad doesn't kill anybody, having one on the other hand is a risk.

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Good answer, but do you think that if you had a computer in the house when you were younger, you might have been able to control your gaming better when you were a teenager? – jwg Feb 20 at 11:41
Do you have any information on the specific risks or timeframes? You didn't actually address the question of "How much time is too much...?" – CreationEdge Sep 29 at 21:01

I'd say it depends on many things.

It is definitely a good rule to make your kids finish homework before they play on their iPad, or play with their friends, or do really anything else. But I would say that you're looking at everything totally wrong if you say that these devices are just a waste of time for your kids, then go out and set ridiculous restrictions on them.

You see, an iPad, computer, or whatever is not simply a toy, they are also powerful learning tools far ahead of practically anything else.

BUT this all depends on how they are used. You see, your kids could spend hours upon hours playing Angry Birds or being glued to Netflix. OR they could play puzzles that improve their cognitive ability, watch educational videos, or even use it to do their freaking homework.

Now, I can understand that there are very few options for a child too young to read. In this case, yes, they should have VERY limited time on such devices. They need to play outside, with friends, and learn to understand the real world. But if you are limiting use for older children this can be a very bad thing. These devices can be very good for them. Of course, if they are playing mindless video games (MINDLESS is key) then it is simply a waste of time, but keep in mind that it has been shown that fast-paced action games improve many areas of the brain, such as reaction time, strategy formulation, and attention to detail.

As an example, I have been into computers my entire life (I made a looping video of a walking giraffe when I was three years old), but I was never very interested in video games. Instead I would tinker with things, learn things like image editing, video making, and then eventually, I learned how to make programs. Now I am just starting my own business making computer programs and video games.

Around grade five I moved to a place where internet was very fast and available (before then I had almost no experience with the internet) and I just started learning. I would just search Google for hours about things I was interested in. As I got older computers were more and more widely used in school and homework. I am currently a University student and more than half of it is online. We get important information about the course on our class pages and so far we haven't been given anything worth marks that didn't require the use of a computer.

On top of that, I use my device to:

  • Find sheet music
  • Read books
  • Find information on important topics
  • Watch educational videos on YouTube
  • As a guitar tuner
  • To write essays
  • Make programs
  • Record music
  • Write music
  • Release music
  • Listen to music
  • Keep in touch with my classmates and instructors
  • Make videos
  • Manage my business
  • Learn French
  • And every now and again I like unwind by watching a little bit of Netflix

(I wasn't gonna make a list, but my sentence got too long :D)

I don't spend hours Snapchatting random crap to people or browsing through a bunch of stupid pictures posted mostly by people I don't know or don't like on Instagram.

On the other side, my sister (who is still just learning to read) spends all of her free time watching the same movies over and over again. She plays on her iPad at when she is supposed to be eating and sleeping. What annoys me most is her habit to have the TV set to one of her shows AND has Netflix running on her iPad AT THE SAME TIME. She freaks out if you try to watch your own show, but whenever I am visiting home and I have to watch her I tell her she has to choose one. Granted, she does like to play some games that help her with spelling and reading as well as some that allow her to be creative. But she has developed a VERY short attention span, and even though she has so many toys and an iPad stuffed to the max with games (it shows a constant space warning) she is incapable of keeping herself entertained. But then her teacher talks to my parents about her showing signs of severe stress, I wonder why...

I can see what the world is coming to. The vast majority of people spend all of their time tapping away at their phones, wasting their time with total nonsense on social networks. People are losing personality and are overall becoming utterly useless.

So many people these days think that it's worth risking their lives (and the lives of others) on the road to text their friends about random crap. It's sad, really.

ANYWAY, the point of that giant wall of rambling text is that these devices can be such a great thing for your kids. AS LONG as you teach them to use it productively.

I hope that helped somehow :D

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