Toddlers & Tablets: When Should Preschoolers Play Video Games?

Research just in from 2011 shows that preschoolers, children between the ages of two and five are the fastest growing segment of video game players in the U.S.

Much of that increase is attributed to the use of smartphones and computer tablets. Mom and dad's iPhone or iPad is quickly becoming the toy of choice for many preschoolers.

A recent study claims more preschoolers know how to use a smartphone or a tablet than know how to tie their own shoes. That leads to the question: how much time on these devices is too much for children so young?

Plop an iPhone or an iPad down in a group of preschoolers and just watch. Immediately their feet stop moving and their fingers start.

From Angry Birds to Fruit Ninja and Temple Run, these four and five-year-olds know all of the popular apps. They know the lingo and they definitely know their favorites.

"I play Angry Birds and I play the princess game and I play the pizza game and the cake game and I've got new games on my iPad," shared five-year-old Abigail Bangs.

Four-year-old Nicholas Sela let us know, "I play Lego Batman."

Five-year-old Brooklyn Munsell described her favorites. "It has a piano on it too and books you can read and drawing and painting."

There's a lot of fun to be had right at the tips of their fingers and 75% of parents say they hand their smartphones over to their kids at least occasionally.

Alvaro Sela, a father of two, admits smartphones are an easy and accessible form of entertainment for his kids. "His sister, for example, does a lot of dance competitions and he's four. He'll watch for a little bit and then he's bored right away. He'll want to be entertained and the phone is always going to be there."

The main problem with preschoolers spending too much time alone on these devices is that it robs them of the opportunity to work on their language development which later factors into their ability to read.

"We've got great hand eye coordination. We don't need anymore," said Suzanne Pate, co-owner of Teacher's Pet Preschool in North Little Rock. "But we need our vocabulary to increase. We need to learn to think and to reason and that only comes with interaction with people."

The key for parents is to start setting limits early on, according to Dr. Nicholas Long, Director of Pediatric Psychology at Arkansas Children's Hospital. He says preschoolers should not spend more than an hour a day in front of a smartphone, a computer or a television. Kids who do run the risk of becoming dependent on the devices.

"They're replacing the cherished stuffed animal," said Dr. Long. "When the children wake up from a nap or get up in the morning, the first thing they want is not their stuffed animal or another toy, but their parent's smartphone."

While some games do help preschoolers learn their colors and numbers, Dr. Long is convinced that the more time a family spends unplugged - the better.

"Why do young children like to play with smartphones? Part of it is because they often see their parents texting and looking at their smartphones throughout the day. So its really important for parents to unplug themselves from their smartphones and spend time with their children."

There are even apps out there that have been created for babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, discourages television and computer use for all children under the age of two.