Father and daughter reading on a tablet.

With smartphones, tablets, laptops and more types of technology integrated into our daily lives, it’s hard not to think about how and when to use these devices with our children, even at the youngest ages. The explosion of technology has outpaced the research, so it leaves us trying to figure out what is best for our children without much data to help guide our decisions.

Most of the research done so far does not show that technology-enriched activities for preschoolers are superior to activities done without technology. For example, a child who is being read to with an app or ebook is not guaranteed better comprehension and vocabulary development than a child who is read to by an adult. In fact, depending on how many “bells and whistles” are competing for the child’s attention during the story, the app or ebook reading may actually decrease some of the desired reading development outcomes.

So, when considering the role of technology, think of it as just that, a role. A book on CD/tape, an alphabet app, or any other educational electronic gadget will not be the only thing your child needs to build pre-reading skills. Technology can be a fun way to introduce concepts or allow your child to practice new skills, but what young children most need are interactions with caring adults. For very young children, learning is most meaningful when it is done in a natural way: through daily conversations, songs, book readings and looking at words and pictures in the environment, not while staring at a small electronic screen.

When you do choose to use technology, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Limit the amount of time your child has with all screens, including TV, computer, smartphone and tablet.
  • Think about technology as just one of many ways to provide fun, engaging language and pre-reading experiences for your child, and one that should be used in small doses.
  • Sit with your child and watch what she is seeing and doing when using the technology.
  • Think of activities you can do after your child uses the technology to extend the learning.
  • Ask yourself: Is the activity too easy or too hard for my child? Is this activity something I would want my child watching or doing if it wasn’t in electronic form?
  • Consider how much screen time you are engaged in and whether it prevents you from talking, playing, and reading with your child.

As you start to evaluate what role technology will play in the life of your young child, remember that you know your child best. You can make decisions about what, when and how much your child is exposed to technology. Your choices may be different from your neighbors, your friends or other members of your family. They may be different among your own children, depending on their ages, temperaments and interest levels. One of the most important ways to make technology work for you and your young child is to continue to be present and active when your child uses it.