Catherine Toth Fox: How Did My 5-Year-Old Learn His Way Around An iPad Already? - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor of HONOLULU Family and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Being a parent isn’t just difficult — or all-consuming or expensive or frustrating — it’s also confusing.

When do I switch to a booster seat in the car? Are pull-ups OK at night? Should I be concerned that my kid just touched the bottom of his slipper and licked his fingers?

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There are no clear-cut answers here.

But I was sure there was one thing I felt parents were in agreement over — well, until the pandemic.

Screen time.

We know a lot of it isn’t good for kids — or adults — and parents, especially first-time ones like me, have very idealistic goals when it comes to screens and their kids. Less is best is the general guideline.

The World Health Organization issued a set of guidelines stating infants under 1 year of age should not be exposed to electronic screens and those between the ages of 2 and 4 shouldn’t have more than one hour of “sedentary screen time” each day.

That was in 2019. Before Covid-19 disrupted the world, forcing schools to shut down and parents, many of whom now worked from home, to figure out how to juggle at-home schooling while clinging to jobs we were all just grateful to still have. Schools — even some preschools and enrichment programs — went online. So did our jobs. Remember trying to figure out how to leave a Zoom meeting? And when our kids weren’t occupied by virtual lessons, we still had to work. So guess who watched our kids? Mr. iPad.

A survey published by the nonprofit research organization Common Sense Media found that screen time among teens and tweens (kids between 8 and 12) increased 17% from pre-pandemic 2019 to 2021. On average, among tweens, daily screen use went up to five hours and 33 minutes from four hours and 44 minutes; teens averaged eight hours and 39 minutes a day in 2021, up from seven hours and 22 minutes in 2019.

Eight-year-olds watching five hours of “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes,” playing Roblox and watching BTS videos on YouTube a day?

Yeah, that sounds about right.

I’m not proud to admit this, but my son, who’s 5, already knows his way around the iPad. He can even unlock the locked screen — my mom can’t do that — and find his favorite apps, which include Netflix, Disney+, PBS Kids and YouTube. He knows how to skip the intros to some of his favorite shows, he can scroll through a menu of episodes to find the ones he’s looking for, he can even scrub through videos to find exactly the spot he wants to watch.

Did I mention he’s 5?

I’d like to blame the pandemic — and, for sure, it contributed to the alarming spike in screen time for kids everywhere — but it’s not entirely Covid’s fault.

A child holds an ipad with Roblox game prompt.
There are so many ways for children to entertain themselves with screens. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Let’s go back: I was pregnant in 2016, when we were concerned about Zika, the Flint water crisis, Russian hacking and a very polarizing presidential election. I was writing in a pregnancy journal, researching names for my son and stocking up on what I thought were essentials on Amazon. (What baby wouldn’t want a diaper wipe warmer with a built-in changing light?) Like many first-time moms, I had this fairy-tale notion I would never need any kind of electronic device to entertain my child.

And for the first few months, that was true. The most tech-y thing I exposed him to was a baby music channel on Pandora.

When he was nearly 3, he started going to preschool, where he met kids who knew about things like Paw Patrol and Blippi. He started asking questions.

In a few months, Covid-19 had arrived and changed everything. On March 25, 2020, the state issued a stay-at-home order that forced the closure of educational institutions — like preschools — across the Islands. And unless you were an essential worker, and still had a job, you were now required to work from home.

Then it began: My husband and I sitting in separate rooms on our laptops, our son in the living room on an iPad.

Though I would commit part of the day to working with my son on writing the alphabet, learning math, crafting cards for his grandparents and scootering around our cul-de-sac, I had to work, too. And if I had a two-hour virtual meeting, he would sit nearby, watching episodes of “PJ Mask” and “Number Blocks” until those theme songs were burned into my brain.

I talked about this with my mom friends a lot. Like, how did this happen? We had spent so much time worrying about screen time, regulating devices down to the minute, mom-shaming the ones we saw at restaurants and on airplanes plunking a Kindle or smartphone in front of their kids for hours.

And here we were, the very same moms, easily and without much argument, handing over our own iPhones so we could get some work done, a load of laundry washed, dinner cooked, maybe just 10 minutes with no one asking us a string of unanswerable questions.

It doesn’t help that tech literacy is a thing, and kids are learning how to code and type on computers from an early age, sometimes in kindergarten.

Am I worried about my son’s increased screen time? Yes. I realize the effect it can have on attention span, empathy and vision. But how can I control it now, when even his interviews for kindergarten required the ability to navigate a tablet and mute himself on Webex? (We know adults who still haven’t mastered that, two years into the pandemic.)

The Pew Research Center reported in 2020 that 71% of parents with young children — like me, with kids under 12 — are at least somewhat concerned about the effects of screen time on their children and believe the widespread use of smartphones may be more harmful than beneficial. And that study was done before the pandemic.

It doesn’t help that tech literacy is a thing, and kids are learning how to code and type on computers from an early age, sometimes in kindergarten. (Some private schools issue tablets to students on the first day of school.) Kids are expected to navigate today’s digital world, where screens are everywhere. Some restaurants hand you an iPad instead of a menu. Newspapers and magazines are all online. And then there’s social media, which, in conjunction with screen time, surged during the pandemic. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok became sources of entertainment and ways to connect with friends for stuck-at-home kids.

So what are parents supposed to do?

For starters, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. My own daily average screen time is four hours and 26 minutes, according to my iPhone. We know when too much feels like too much. Take a breath, go on a walk — and take your kid, not your phone, with you.


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor of HONOLULU Family and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Toddlers can already navigate an IPad. However, to really develop a child maximum potential academically, parents (caregivers) need to read to them daily from infancy to elementary school. "Reading to babies and young children is so important," sayspediatrician Sarah Klein, MD. "It provides the building blocks for language. And it gives them the tools for forming lifelong social and emotional skills." I’ve read (biographical works) historical books to my son since he was a few months old. He is a young adult now but I know he is carrying a volume of knowledge on British politics during Winston Churchill’s time to include social mores from that time period.

Srft1 · 1 month ago

Board games have really advanced and some are even good for solo play or have artistic aspects such as painting miniatures.

MEL · 1 month ago

I once was friends with a divorced mother with 2 children who grew up without a television set. When the mother remarried later, the children got their first regular exposure to television. I never forgot the massive impact this had on them. The whole dynamic of the little family was altered beyond recognition. Screen based technologies can be a curse, absolutely.

Keaukaha · 1 month ago

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