What is the best way to introduce screen media to our three-and-a-half-year-old?


Dr. Michael Rich — the “Mediatrician”

by Dr. Michael Rich:

Q: What is the appropriate way to introduce screen media to our three-and-a-half-year-old son? We don’t own a TV, and our son’s exposure to screens has been limited to occasionally taking photos and video and watching Curious George on our smartphones once or twice a week, as a reward, for 10-30 minutes. He’s a very happy kid, and thus far, we don’t have any concerns about his development. We want to help him begin to use and learn from screen-based technology at some appropriate time, and we are wondering what you’d recommend for us at this stage—are there specific apps or games or series you’d recommend?

~ Seeking Sage Screen Advice, MA

A: Dear Seeking,

I love getting questions like this because it shows how deeply and sensitively you have thought about your child’s development and how media might influence it. Because the media and technology landscape changes so rapidly, CMCH does not endorse any specific apps or devices (see Common Sense Media for ideas). However, we can provide some fundamentals of how to raise a media-savvy digital citizen.

Think about the devices and the software they run as tools, and introduce these tools at times that are developmentally optimal for the child (that is, when he wants or needs to use the technology and is capable of doing so effectively). At three and a half, your son has already shown a desire and ability to use screens, and most importantly, because he shoots and watches video on your smartphone, the understanding that media are created. The awareness that someone makes media, which are not the whole story, but the part of the story the maker wants to share, is the core knowledge that he needs to master media. I recommend continuing with devices and content that are interactive (such as responsive apps, television shows that ask for audience participation, and music that your son can sing along or dance with), and see how your son responds to each.

Use media for time periods that match his attention span. For example, your son will pay far more attention and be more engaged for three 25-minute sessions with media than for one 60-minute experience. Introducing media this way can help him focus and understand it better, rather than having him disengage and wander off while it is still on in the background (which can contribute to poor screen-use habits in the future).

Make choices about devices based on your goals. If you are sharing Curious George to occupy him when you’re out and about, then a smartphone is a good tool for that. If you want him to engage more fully with the content, then it might help to watch on a television. The bigger screen can allow him to move his body while watching more easily than he can if it’s on a device he has to hold. It can also be easier for you to watch with him, which can help him learn from it, which brings me to my next point:

Use media with him. Help him process the content by engaging him in it. You can do this by asking him questions such as, “What did you think of that?”, “Why did he say that?” “What else could have happened?” This can be especially beneficial if he is exposed to commercials, as it can help him better understand and deconstruct what he is watching. Engaging children from very early on can help them understand that everything they watch on a screen is constructed and put together with an outcome in mind, whether it be learning to sing ABCs or buy soft drinks.

Avoid making media the forbidden fruit. Introducing TV in a mindful, purposeful way can help him use it effectively as he grows and prevent it from becoming something so special that he doesn’t have the skills, knowledge, or inclination to control it when he does have access to it. For the same reason, I would not recommend using Curious George or other screen media as a reward, nor would I use taking it away as a punishment. These tools should be integrated into the rich tapestry of your son’s daily experience, as part of the way that he learns about and integrates with the world, rather than as something special.

Model how to use media in optimal ways, and help him do so for himself. Your use of media is the single most important model for your son on how to use media and technology effectively and to successfully integrate them into his life. I recommend that you demonstrate and teach him effective, productive media use by using each of these tools with him the first few times. Doing this will give you the opportunity to observe how your son uses these devices and engages with and reacts to the content. Every child is different, and some kids are more sensitive to certain content than others, or learn better from certain formats than others. If you notice that your son is confused, upset, or just doesn’t engage with a device or certain content, it is okay to wait and re-introduce the media later. Your guidance and observations will help you better understand what works best for your son, allowing you to select the media and technology that will best suit his needs, interests, and developmental stage.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

~ The Mediatrician®

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Associate Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, and practices Adolescent Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is the Founder and Director of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) as well as a pediatrician, researcher, father, and media aficionado. As The Mediatrician®, Dr. Rich offers research-based answers parents’, teachers’, and clinicians’ questions about children’s media use and implications for their health and development.