Is any age too early to give cellphones or tablets to children?

If you're buying presents for children this Christmas, you may be feeling the pressure to give some higher-end tech. Items such as tablets are being aggressively marketed as children's gifts.

Some experts say screen time early in life can harm child development

A study by the Hautes-Rivières school board found 30 per cent of elementary school students say they do not get enough sleep at night. (Radio-Canada)

If you're buying presents for children this Christmas, you may be feeling the pressure to give some higher-end tech. Items such as tablets are being aggressively marketed as children's gifts. 

It's a shift from only a few years ago. The Fire HD Kids Edition Tablet is advertised as "a real tablet" with the added benefit as a "kid-proof" case to avoid breaks. It includes parental controls such as the ability to set screen-time limits.

On mobile? Click here to view the Best Buy commercial. 

A commercial from Best Buy features an employee in what looks like a child's play room. The room is decorated in bright colours. The walls are covered in artwork that appears to be done by a five-year-old.

The employee starts the commercial by saying, "Now most people think of Best Buy as a place to shop for adults, but we also have a huge selection of tech gifts for kids and teens."

It advertises a GoPro, portable speakers, and another kid friendly tablet, which the employee says "even toddlers know how to use."

Consequences of introducing tech early

Some professionals say there is an age that is too early to be using screen technology. The Canadian Pediatrics Society released guidelines on screen time. It says screen time should be limited to zero hours before the age of two, up to one hour between the ages of two and four, and up to two hours between the ages of four and 17. 

Stan Lipnowksi is a pediatrician who helped author the report that stated these guidelines.

He said they wrote the guidelines largely to decrease sedentary behaviour and increase activity in children, but he adds it is also important that children have a lot of social interaction during their development. He favours learning methods where children interact with a person rather than an educational app.

"The younger we can get our children to interact and have quality time with caregivers, it pays tremendous dividends down the line," he said. "They have better social skills, they don't rely on the TV to be their babysitter, and they learn quite well."

Another factor experts say you must consider is whether children are able to handle the constant social media connection that comes hand in hand with a technology like cell phones. Hazen Gandy is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario. He says children and youth have increasing stress levels, and social media is a contributing factor. 

"In our generation, if there was a bully in our playground, when we went home we felt safe," said Gandy. On social media that bully follows you into your bedroom."

The benefit of teaching digital literacy

David Gerhard knows technology. He's a computer science professor at the University of Regina. He's also a father of two children. He just gave his eight-year-old daughter her first cell phone. 
David Gerhard has already given a cell phone to his eight-year-old daughter, but he says his kids aren't asking for any other high-end technology for Christmas. (Tiffany Cassidy)

The cell phone doesn't have a SIM card and functions more like a small tablet with apps. He originally gave it as a motivational tool -- he adds a new app to his daughter's phone when she shows good behavior. But he's found new uses for it.

"It's also a way for her to sort of recognize that she's part of this culture that is going to be digital," he said.

"If she's going to be able to navigate that world in an appropriate way, she needs to be able to familiar with this technology, its limitations, its drawbacks, its challenges early in life. The way I figure it, either she's going to learn that from me, or she's going to learn that from some friend when she's over on a play date. If I have the choice, I'd prefer to be involved in that conversation."

In the end, Gerhard says it's a balance.

"We still control when she is allowed to play on her phone and when she's on her phone ... because she's a kid she doesn't know that staring at her phone for days at a time is going to rot her brain, so we help her to recognize those things and control the way she uses the technology."


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