On The Whole Screentime Front, Some People Think Kids Belong In Front Of TVs Instead Of IPads

This essay was adapted from Jacqueline Nesi’s newsletter, Techno Sapiens. Subscribe here.

I’m an assistant professor at Brown University, where I study the impact of digital technology on kids’ development and mental health. In my newsletter, Techno Sapiens, I answer parents’ questions about kids and tech, using the latest research, my experience as a clinical psychologist, and my on-the-job training as a mom of two. Here’s a question I got recently:

Is there a difference between kids using an iPad versus watching TV? I have this suspicion that watching on a TV is “better” somehow, even if the only thing my kid is doing on the iPad is watching streaming services. When my kid watches Bluey on the tablet, she gets right up close to the thing, nose-to-screen; sometimes she even hides the tablet under a blanket so she can be all alone with it, like Gollum and his precious. When she watches Bluey on the TV, she does gymnastics on our poor abused couch, starts doing art projects or playing with her stuffies, and goes in and out of conversation with the other people nearby, Seems better? But maybe I just get a creepy feeling about her doing TV-on-the-tablet because I grew up watching TV on a TV set, and so far as I can tell, I turned out fine? Is there research on this? Thank you!

Ah, the good old days, when we’d return home from a day of working the fields and churning the butter, throw some porridge on the wood-burning fireplace, light up some oil lamps and … turn on the TV.

In all seriousness, this is a great (and very common) question. I can definitely relate! Many of us grew up watching TV, so we have this intuitive sense that TV must somehow be “better” than a tablet. But is this true?

As with most scenarios where research evidence meets everyday parenting decisions, the answer starts out with a nice, hearty “it depends.”

In general, is there something inherently worse about an iPad than a TV for our children’s overall development and well-being? No. An iPad is, at its most basic, just a smaller TV screen we can hold in our hands.

There are, however, a number of considerations you’ll want to keep in mind when deciding which device is right for your child. Here are a few:

Turning it off

Some families find that ending “screen time” is easier on a TV, where you can press “off” and physically leave it behind. This can be more challenging on an iPad. One option? Designate a location in your house where the iPad “lives,” and where it returns at the end of screen time. In order for this to work, you’ll need to be consistent. It also helps if the iPad “lives” somewhere out of sight (a closet, a cabinet) and out of reach of little hands.


Content watched (or played) on an iPad is more likely to have features like auto-play (videos play automatically after each other), suggestions for “related” videos, and rewards (for example, a sparkly rainbow appears after a child reaches a new level of a game). These features may even cross into “manipulative design,” and can make the iPad harder to turn off. Of course, a tablet can also be used, as in the Bluey example above, to watch the exact same show a child might watch on a TV. This speaks to the importance of choosing content wisely, no matter the device.


Research strongly supports the benefits of “co-viewing,” or actively engaging with screens together with your child. This can be easier on a TV, where the screen is bigger, though of course not impossible with an iPad. If your viewing situation would allow some co-viewing if it’s done on a TV screen (if, say, you are cooking or folding laundry while your child watches in the same room), but not so much if done on an iPad, this may be a “pro” on the side of the TV.

Similarly, a TV may make it easier for you to keep an eye on the contents of the screen. If, as described, your child’s Gollum-like tendencies result in iPad viewing in a more secluded location (e.g., under a blanket), there’s a higher chance they will end up watching something you prefer that they do not.


Research has identified a number of qualities that make for good, educational media. In order for kids to learn from shows and apps, it helps if they are interactive (e.g., a child answers a question and gets feedback on whether it was correct), engaging, age-appropriate, and applicable to their daily lives. One benefit of an iPad is the greater possibility for apps and games that are interactive in this way. Of course, this requires vetting those apps to determine whether they’re actually educational or just claim to be. Common Sense Media’s app reviews can help with this.

Sensory considerations

Kids have very different preferences and needs when it comes to sensory engagement (i.e., how they process input from the environment, like sound, visuals, and touch). How a child responds to a screen is dependent on a lot of factors, many of which are related to the content they’re watching. However, an iPad will likely be more “tactile” (they’re holding it, possibly swiping), and, usually, closer to their face. Kids will respond in different ways to this, and it’s worth monitoring how your child responds to find what works best for them (and you).

Portability and movement

This one’s obvious, but if the goal is to provide entertainment or distraction during, say, a long flight, or a painful medical procedure, an iPad is far more portable. At the same time, when watching at home, a restless child may benefit from watching TV instead, where they can jump, roll, high-step, or do gymnastics (as mentioned) while the TV plays in the background.

Distance from the screen

There is some evidence that close-viewing of screens for extended periods of time can cause “digital eye strain” (i.e., dry, tired, sensitive eyes); iPads tend to be viewed at closer range than TVs. However, if you’re following other recommendations—taking frequent breaks, generally keeping screen time in check—viewing on an iPad versus TV is unlikely to make much difference here.

All that said, there are many good ways to approach this. Some families do only TV. Others do TV at home, and tablets outside of the house (for example, while traveling). Some do TV for shows and tablets for games, or TV for family movie night and tablets for one-off screen use. Still others do only tablets, where they’ve carefully curated certain shows and apps. Try setting some parameters that make sense to you, communicate them to your child, and test it out. You can always revisit if it’s not working. Ultimately, as with most things, it’s about experimenting and finding what works best for your family.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top