April 22, 2024

Are ‘tablets’ the next ‘cigarettes’?

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Are 'tablets' the next 'cigarettes'?

Family Adventures

I recently went on a lovely vacation away with my family. This was the first 'real' vacation we've taken together... historically we've gravitated to 'adventures' like canoe tripping in Algonquin (*nb- with young children off-grid camping does NOT constitute vacation... that's a trip. There's a big difference hah). I do LOVE the outdoors, but gosh was it nice to hit the easy button and actually relax a little bit. It's amazing how a little time away can rejuvenate the mind and the body; I feel SO ready to be back to work! 🙂  

While we had an amazing time away, there was one thing that really concerned me right from the start of our trip..


Aka iPads with cool and colourful protective cases that kids can use for games, watching shows and movies, etc.   

As a child psychologist with years of experience working with families, I'm concerned that tablets may become the next 'cigarettes'... harmful, addictive and too accessible to our kids… I know this sounds dramatic and like I'm preaching from my soapbox, but hear me out.

The parallels are striking:

Just as cigarettes were once seen as harmless and even trendy, tablets have now infiltrated nearly every aspect of children's lives, from family dinners to vacations by the beach. These devices are addictive to little ones, there's no doubt about that. During our time away I couldn't help but notice the pervasive presence of tablets. From the moment we boarded the plane, it seemed like every child had a screen in front of them, absorbed in digital worlds rather than engaging with their surroundings or interacting with others. This pattern persisted at the hotel, where kids were glued to their tablets around the pool, at the dinner table, and even while walking on the beach. It was a sad sight, to say the least. It even became difficult for my kids to concentrate on their own dinners as their gazes drifted mindlessly in the direction of OTHER kid's tablets. 

The Picture

But why are tablets becoming the go-to solution for parents when faced with potential challenges like boredom or tantrums? The answer lies in our fear of our children's discomfort and our desire to avoid meltdowns at any cost. However, in our efforts to pacify our little ones, we are inadvertently doing more harm than good.  

Research has shown that excessive screen time can have detrimental effects on children's development, including impacts on their social, emotional, and cognitive skills. A recently published longitudinal (Madigan et al., 2019) study found that increased screen time in a large sample of young children was associated with poorer developmental outcomes at age three. Another study from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, sleep disturbances, and delays in language development. In terms of emotional development, Odgers et al. (2020) uncovered that too much screen time can leave our kids feeling lonely and disconnected from real-world interactions, while the American Optometric Association (2020) also warns that prolonged screen exposure may strain our kids' eyes and lead to vision problems. There's more but you get the picture.  

By relying on tablets to keep children occupied, we are failing to teach them essential life skills, such as how to cope with boredom, regulate their emotions, and engage in meaningful interactions with others. Instead of fostering independence and creativity, we are fostering dependency and passivity.   

But it's not just about the individual impact on children; it's also about the broader societal implications. Just as cigarettes were once glamorized in advertising and normalized in social settings, tablets are now being marketed as essential tools for education and entertainment. Yet, we must question whether this convenience comes at too high a cost.

A Quick Fix?

As parents, we need to take a step back and reconsider our reliance on tablets as a quick fix for every challenge we face. Instead of reaching for the nearest screen when our children become restless or bored, let's encourage them to explore the world around them, engage in imaginative play, and interact with others face-to-face. While we were away we loved playing eye-spy at the dinner table, and a game where we had to come up with the name of a place using a letter that someone else chose. Kids LOVE to be engaged in discussion with adults... and they need us to.  

Of course, I understand that parenting IS challenging, tiring and all consuming. There may be times when a screen use or a tablet is the easiest/best solution, and a little bit can be OK. Don't get me wrong, we watch TV at our house... I love to watch TV (mostly re-runs of sex and the city hah) and our kids do enjoy a good hour or two of shows every few days. However, we have refrained from tablets & video games in our house so we can closely monitor the time spent and content that my kids are watching. This will likely get more difficult as my kids get older, but it's a challenge I'm willing to face.

The bottom line:
if we prioritize short-term convenience over long-term well-being, we risk raising a generation of children who lack the essential skills they need to thrive in an increasingly complex world.

I WANT my kids to know how to have conversations, how to navigate their boredom, how to find creative solutions.. I'm OK with them being uncomfortable.

So, what can we do as parents to break free from the grip of tablets? Here are a few practical tips:

  1. Be a role model: Limit your own screen time and demonstrate healthy tech habits for your children to emulate.
  2. Set limits on screen time: All parents, even parents of teens, should establish clear rules and boundaries around when and how long your child can use a tablet each day. It is recommended that children be on screens less than 2 hours/day (outside of school).
  3. Minimize the number of screens available to your child. If they have a tablet and phone and access to a TV or videogames, consider scaling down and limiting the use of personal devices, especially with younger children!
  4. Encourage alternative activities: Provide your child with plenty of opportunities for outdoor play, creative expression, and social interaction.
  5. Create tech-free 'zen zones': Designate certain areas of your home, such as the dinner table (this is a BIG one as eating in front of a screen put kids at higher risk of obesity!) or bedrooms (screens in bedrooms have been shown to disrupt sleeping in youth and adult populations), as screen-free zones to promote family bonding and relaxation.
  6. Stay informed: Stay up-to-date on the latest research and recommendations regarding screen time and its effects on child development.

By taking these steps, we can begin to reclaim our roles as parents and prioritize the well-being of our children over the convenience of digital devices. Let's break free from the cycle of mindless pacification and empower our children to become resilient, independent, and socially adept individuals.