Children and Media Usage: Feeling and experiencing instead of swiping and tapping

Children are coming into contact with digital media at an increasingly early age. Parents should accompany them in their media use and select offers that are suitable for children.

Before the youngest children even pick up a smartphone or remote control themselves, they already see how mobile devices, laptops and televisions are used in the family – and they imitate their parents by swiping across the screens seemingly intuitively. This is where parents are particularly important as role models. Children need lots of sensory experiences, especially in the first few years of life: Smelling, tasting, hearing, seeing and feeling are fundamental to the child’s development. Young children learn about their environment through trial and error and do not need a tablet, smartphone or television to do so. However, media is a part of our environment nowadays. So how can we introduce children to media usage in a way that also protects them and does not overstimulate their senses?

First, very sparingly dosed experiences with media can be exciting for babies – in moderation. They enjoy listening to noises, voices or melodies. However, this can quickly become too much and requires a sensitive approach. Once children between the ages of one and two have developed an understanding of imagery, they can distinguish digital content from real objects. Simple picture stories that are close to the child’s everyday life can now be interesting for them, as can simple movements such as tapping or swiping. In general, however, it is more important for children under the age of three to experience the real world with all their senses before they discover electronic media. After their third birthday, children can use media in a more targeted way – accompanied by their parents and to a manageable extent.

Laying the foundations and setting an example

Families are advised to set their own rules for media use. This also includes parents taking a close look at how they use media themselves in front of their children. Because they are under observation: the very young ones first imitate, the older ones eventually want to do what their parents (or grandparents) do. And if adults look at their smartphones every few minutes, their offspring will most likely try to do the same.

As the youngest children have their first media experiences passively, it is the adults’ responsibility to keep an eye on whether the child is getting restless and to make sure they get enough breaks. Periods of rest and calm are particularly important for a young brain, which already has to process a lot of new stimuli. It is important that media does not interfere with direct interaction and distract from feeding, for example. At seven or eight months, looking at picture books together becomes interesting. Toddlers enjoy being read to by their parents or listening to simple stories and songs. Here, the media (book) is still used as a tool of interaction between the parents and their child.

As parents and siblings often use media, even the youngest children’s interest is awakened at an early age. However, young children in particular need holistic experiences such as playing together as a family, exploring nature and playing sport. If parents expose their children to electronic media too early, there is a risk that these holistic experiences will be neglected and that children will be overwhelmed by the media world.

Every child is different and handles media differently – even if they are the same age. Parents know their child best. They know whether they react sensitively or robustly to certain situations and observe how far they are and what they are afraid of. For the youngest children in particular, it is important that parents choose very carefully what their child watches and for how long. In this way, they create a good basis for their child’s future media use.