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Giving a tablet to my toddler was both genius and a disaster
Whether they like it or not, parents are frequently warned about the dangers of letting kids use phones and tablets too much. Sometimes this is based on legitimate evidence, such as Meta’s (internal) admission that Instagram can harm the self-esteem of teenage girls. At other times these warnings are based on idealized versions of how kids should grow up — some halcyon vision of them finishing up homework so they can play at the park instead of hopping into Fortnite or Minecraft.
My wife and I have a preschool-aged son, whom we’ll call Gary for the sake of privacy. Shortly after he turned two, we made the decision to give him a tablet — in this case, my old iPad Air 2 after I upgraded to an iPad Pro (2020). Some months later, we even bought him a barebones 2017 iPad, since one of the main reasons I upgraded was the Air 2’s weak battery life. That let us swap in one tablet while the other was charging.
Related: The best Android tablets for kids
Both of us had reservations about giving him a tablet. We wanted to avoid any unhealthy attachments, and to make sure he was at least occasionally learning something. In fact, learning was the main goal, since we’d discovered he liked playing a counting game on my wife’s phone. We also wanted him to be immersed in computing tech as quickly as possible, since those skills have become important not just for a good career, but simply for daily living.
The pandemic forced us to give Gary more exposure to his iPads than we planned, however. While a vaccine for children under five is around the corner, it isn’t approved yet as of this writing. That forced us to keep him out of daycare, especially with specific medical issues that might make symptoms worse. It also wasn’t a hard decision given that both my wife and I work from home.
The result has been an unintentional experiment in what happens when you give a toddler a smart device for hours at a time. I’d classify the outcome as both genius and a disaster, though weighing a little more toward the first camp.
Why giving a toddler a tablet is a good idea
Gary really did take to a bunch of the educational apps we installed, which have helped him learn numbers, letters, counting, and drawing, among other skills. An app that was a big hit was Elmo Loves ABCs (Apple App Store | Google Play Store), which taught him several skills in the same place and rewarded him with cute Sesame Street videos. As a bonus to us, it was a handy way of tracking his development — he went from being unable to understand games or trace letters to doing everything with ease.
Both games and YouTube videos have taught him about the world, including animals, cars, space, and more complex concepts.
We do, of course, teach Gary away from his iPads as well, but he surprises us with how much he learns on his own. Both games and YouTube videos have taught him about the world, including animals, cars, space, and other concepts. Recently, for example, he started talking about things “going down the vortex” — he’s a little hazy about what a “vortex” is, but the notion that a preschooler even knows that word is mind-blowing. He’s sight-reading many words thanks to videos, his parents, and his ever-patient granny.
Almost more impressive is how fluent he is with smartphones and tablets. He’s not logging into app stores or entering URLs, but he can navigate iPadOS with minimal effort. He even knows how to change volume and brightness with Control Center, or hunt down apps that aren’t on the homescreen, much to our chagrin.
See also: Things iOS does better than Android
Why giving a toddler a tablet is a bad idea
Gary has become heavily dependent on his iPads. He’ll often ask for his “black iPad” or his “yellow iPad” (going by case color) when it’s playtime, and try to keep using it when he’s supposed to be eating breakfast or dinner. While he won’t fight if you take an iPad away, he will let out an angry grunt if he doesn’t understand why.
His dependence is so strong that it can be hard to get him to go to sleep without one. It can be done — custom sleep video playlists on a small TV seem to help — but he’s unhappy enough that we often cave to pressure.
The most concerning thing has been his usage habits. While he still occasionally plays games and watches educational videos like Blippi or Super Simple Songs, he’s gradually become trapped by YouTube’s algorithms, and now spends many hours a day watching pointless videos. I do mean pointless — we’re talking compilations of car dashboard startups, or objects being run over or tossed in a shredder. On brand for Android Authority, one favorite is a compilation of Samsung logo animations, with basic audio and video effects to make them crazy.
Related: Every YouTube app and what they do
You might be thinking that we should limit Gary to YouTube Kids instead of the regular YouTube app. We did, as a matter of fact, and he sometimes uses the Kids app to watch things like Blippi. But he discovered that it wasn’t too hard to get to YouTube via Apple’s Safari browser, which you can’t delete from iPadOS. While you can remove it from the homescreen, Gary is smart enough to realize he can get to it through the App Library.
He discovered that he can get to YouTube via Apple's Safari browser, which can't be uninstalled.
We’re going to try locking his iPad down even further by blocking youtube.com in the iPadOS Settings app — hoping he doesn’t throw any tantrums. Eventually, he’ll get his own Apple ID, which will enable the toughest parental controls while still letting him use apps we’ve bought via Family Sharing. We should’ve started with that second route, admittedly, and we’ll probably go that direction in the future. But having to create a new Apple ID, set parental controls, reset two iPads, and then redownload a bunch of apps is a time-consuming endeavor, especially when there are more pressing issues like potty training or trying new foods.
We’re also trying to reduce his dependence by limiting his iPad time. He still gets his iPad most nights, but he now has less time with it during the day, the idea being that toys, books, and even TV are preferable to what Gary wants on YouTube. He gets unhappy about it, but it’s worth it for his mental development.
So, is an iPad OK for a toddler? What can we learned from giving a tablet to a preschooler
If my wife and I were starting fresh with Gary, we’d not only block youtube.com from the outset, but set fixed hours for iPad time, and nothing after 8PM. Rules would set clear expectations for when devices are acceptable, and force him to appreciate other, hopefully more educational ways of having fun.
The tablets have, however, proved a net positive in terms of his education. While there are minor problems with his CDC milestones, he’s actually ahead of the curve in several areas, especially when it comes to technology. I’m not saying he’s a prodigy, just that his iPads have helped, without any major setbacks. If anything, the inability to socialize much during the past two years has been the bigger problem. Kids need each other to model behavior and learn languages.
You’re probably thinking I should’ve anticipated some of the problems and solutions I’ve mentioned, particularly as someone in tech journalism. I actually sympathize with that point of view, but as many people will attest, parenting is often about adapting to your child’s personality while juggling a hundred different things at the same time. What seems obvious in hindsight was just out of view when there was a mess to clean up or an ouchie to fix.