These seem to be the dilemmas of modern parenting.
I confess I'm no expert on this topic. In fact, I'm pretty rubbish when it comes to anything technology-related.
I sometimes have my reservations about toddlers using technology. I know babies and toddlers learn from playing in a three-dimensional world, so can a two-dimensional screen provide them with a meaningful learning experience?
When she was younger, my daughter didn't use to spend much time in front of a screen, she wasn't that interested in TV for more than a few minutes and would rather wander off and play with her toys. I used to play her videos of kids songs and nursery rhymes on YouTube quite a lot, but then stopped as I felt it wasn't a great habit to get into and, besides, I was getting pretty bored of hearing the same songs over and over!
Then somewhere around the age of two I realised that Emma was interested in watching TV for longer periods of name, although almost exclusively Peppa Pig, Masha and the Bear and BabyTV. She also watches the same cartoons on YouTube.
Are screens addictive? Sometimes it seems like it when Emma is glued to the screen, apparently oblivious to everything else going on, and when she makes a huge fuss if I take away the iPad or switch it off. But then you distract her with something else and she's forgotten about it the next minute.
There are plenty of arguments against letting toddlers use tablets and other kinds of digital technology, but I'm going to take the other side and look at what the benefits could be.
Digital technology is an integral part of the world our kids are growing up in and screens are everywhere. It's almost impossible to avoid, so we may as well make the most of it.
2. Developing a healthy relationship with technology
Children need to learn how to have a healthy relationship with technology from an early age and use it sensibly. Total prohibition can be counterproductive and often has the opposite effect to the desired one. If children learn that they need to limit how much time they spend in front of a screen and that they should do other activities first (like exercise/sports, homework, chores, creative activities), then hopefully these rules will become habits that stick with them. It's important for parents to model healthy use of technology, too - probably the most difficult part as we're usually the worst offenders.
3. Learning through technology and play
An educational app can provide some great learning opportunities for toddlers. Just watching TV or videos is generally a very passive activity so I think an interactive app especially aimed at young children is a better alternative, and can make screen time a more stimulating learning experience.
I don't know why I didn't think of this earlier. Did I say I was a late adopter? So that's why almost-two-and-a-half-year-old Emma has only just started using her first app for kids. Of course, she loves it!
The one we're using is the Kidloland app, to which I received a year's subscription. It's an educational app aimed at children from babies to five-year-olds and has a range of different types of activities suitable for the interests and abilities of the age group. There are different sections with nursery rhymes, games, numbers, phonics, shapes and colours, stories and more, and within each section there are lots of different activities to download. There's a section for parents, too, accessible by answering a simple addition, where you can manage your downloads and set up nursery rhyme playlists.
At the moment, Emma loves the nursery rhymes and especially that you can tap on different parts of the pictures and they move and make noises. For example, a dog barks and jumps; apples fall off a tree onto the farmer sitting underneath, the cow jumps over the moon, the guards' helmets fall off, etc.
Her other favourite section is the games. Within the games there is usually a variety of tasks to complete. The activities she can do quite easily are the ones involving matching shapes, animals or letters to their shadows, colour matching, jigsaws, dragging and dropping tasks and identifying pairs. She's just getting the hang of the dot-to-dot, but needed help at first as she doesn't recognise the numbers yet. Others activities involving identifying letters and numbers are still too advanced for her so she skips those.
She's also pretty taken with the musical petals activity - like a piano in the form of a flower, each petal being a piano key that you tap to play.
On a practical note, once you've downloaded the games and activities you want to access, you don't need an Internet connection to use them. That brings me to the next point:
4. Portable Entertainment
The fact that you don't need to be connected to the Internet to use it means you can play on the app during long car journeys, or while waiting for a doctor or dentist appointment, etc. Pretty useful, especially when faced with an imminent attack of boredom.
Here's Emma playing with the Kidloland app; it's the song Old Macdonald had a farm and she taps on the objects on the screen to make different things happen.
I'm sure there are people who would disagree with me about the points above, and of course there are many downsides to toddlers using digital technology, but I think if we use a bit of common sense and our own judgement we can make an informed decision about how much exposure our children have to digital media and devices. As far as that decision is in our hands, because there comes a moment when we don't always have that control. That's why it's important for children to learn to use technology sensibly and in moderation from an early age and to develop a variety of skills and interests that don't rely on being in front of a screen.
It's also essential that they see the adults in their lives practising this same moderation and balance!
You can download the Kidloland app from iTunes, Google Play and Amazon AppStore
Disclaimer: I was given a year's free subscription to the Kidloland app. All opinions are my own.