What parents should know — and do — about young children and mobile devices

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Did you know that 42% of US children ages 0 to 8 have their own mobile device?

That’s one of the many interesting findings of the Common Sense Media Census: Media Use by Kids Zero to Eight. Researchers interviewed 1,454 parents of children 0 to 8, whose ethnicity, education, and socioeconomic status were representative of the US as a whole.

Essentially all homes had a mobile device, up from half in 2011. Ninety-five percent of homes had a smartphone, 78% had a tablet, and, as I said before, 42% of children had their own mobile device. What’s interesting is that the 42% number was the same whether families were high- or low-income. Parents are buying mobile devices for their children, plain and simple.

The amount of time that young children spend in front of screens hasn’t changed much since 2011. On average, it’s about two hours a day (ranging from 42 minutes a day for the under-2 crowd to about three hours for the 5-to-8-year-olds). What has changed, though, is that kids 2 to 8 are spending about an hour a day on a mobile device.

In 2011, just six short years ago, kids under 8 spent about five minutes a day on mobile devices.

This explosion of mobile device use in children isn’t surprising, given the explosion of mobile device use overall. It’s also not necessarily bad. Two-thirds of parents in the survey thought that mobile device use helped their children learn, and they are right that there are lots of great ways mobile devices can do just that. Mobile devices can give children access to educational websites, apps, and videos — and things like Google Earth that can teach them about the world.

If that’s all kids did, this would all be good news. But that’s not all they do. Mostly, according to the report, they watch TV and play games on the devices. And 19% use them in restaurants, and 14% use them while eating meals, cutting into conversations they might have had with family and friends.

Also, they spend more time on mobile devices than reading, if they read at all. Only a little more than half of children 0 to 8 read or are read to — and only for an average of 30 minutes. While mobile devices can be used for reading, that’s not what kids are using them for.

That’s the thing: any device is only as good as what we use it for

When the use of any technology spreads and advances so quickly, it’s hard to be really thoughtful and careful about the implications. It’s perfectly natural to think of these devices as fun new toys — because they are. It’s perfectly natural, too, to think of them as full of potential — because they are. Our task as parents, caregivers, and educators is to be sure that the potential for our children is for good, not harm.

Here are some ways we can do just that:

  • Make sure that the content children access with mobile devices is age-appropriate. Common Sense Media has both a website and an app that can help you find the best content for each age.
  • Make the most of the time children spend on tablets and mobile devices. Look for educational games and videos, or applications that encourage creativity.
  • Mobile devices will never be as good as interactions with other people, or hands-on experiences, when it comes to learning and development. Make sure children get plenty of those, too. And make sure that mobile devices don’t get in the way of exercise or getting outdoors, both of which are important for children.
  • While it’s tempting to use mobile devices as babysitters or something to amuse your child while you multitask, keep that to a minimum. Instead, do things together with them. Play games together. Watch a video together. Learn a language together. Have the mobile device bring you together rather than splitting you apart. Speaking of which…
  • Have device-free zones and times. Like the dinner table (check out these videos featuring Will Ferrell), or family time, or when friends are over (unless they are sharing a game together). The bedroom should be another one of those places. Make sure devices are off (and preferably charged elsewhere) at least an hour before bedtime, as the blue light they emit can make it hard to fall asleep.
  • Talk with your children about mobile device use, especially social media use. Help them learn to be good digital citizens.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has an interactive resource that can help you make a family media plan and help you be sure that mobile devices influence your child’s life in good ways, not bad ones.


  1. Aindrita Sharma

    Most of the Asian countries are now witnessing the rise of digital revolution and this is affecting the children from their early childhood. Many kids here also have their own mobiles and have already stopped socializing with family and friends. With advanced technology showing us miracles, kids are still stuck in apps and are continuing to stay in their virtual reality. As parents, it is a matter of utmost stress.

  2. Matti Mark True

    Good read, thank you!

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