Touch-screen tablets and smartphones weren’t designed for young children, but place one in a toddler’s hands and it’s amazing how quickly they can catch on. But how young is too young for screen time?

Johnny and Angie Oshika’s son Tomio couldn’t write his name using a crayon or a pencil at three years old – but that all changed when he started playing with an iPad.

Using a sketching app, Tomio was able to scribble down his name for the first time.

“He didn’t have the fine motor skills to hold a pen enough to write his name. We didn’t know he could,” Angie said.

The Vancouver couple says they now research online to find the best educational apps available to download for their son.

“There are tons, and some of them are super lame and some of them you can’t figure out how they work. [But] some of them are so intuitive and so well designed.”

And they’re not alone; a recent study published by Common Sense Media found 40 per cent of American children aged two to four are using smartphones, iPads or similar devices. That number jumps to 52 per cent among five to eight-year-olds.

But even educational apps might not be in a child’s best interests. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends only minimal screen time for two to four year olds, maxing out at one hour per day.

And for children before age two, screen time of any kind is discouraged. According to a CPS report, screen time can negatively impact “cognitive and psychosocial development and may adversely affect body composition.”

The society’s Dr. Kirsten Houghton said it’s difficult for research to keep up with technology, but that the negative impacts of screen time are well-established.

“The research available to date doesn’t distinguish screen time from each other, but it does show that children who spend more time in front of a screen have more risk for poor health outcomes,” Houghton said.

Those outcomes can include difficulty sleeping, trouble learning at school and weight problems.

University of British Columbia education professor Don Krug said educational apps can be beneficial, but only for children who have reached a certain age.

“From between the ages of three and five, young people using applications that have some kind of a language-based association are actually increasing their ability to use language,” Krug said.

However, for children below the age of three “there is absolutely no research that shows that there is a benefit in terms of learning with language,” he added.

Houghton said it’s natural for very young children to enjoy the interactivity of electronic devices, but they can have the same experience using building blocks or puzzles -- without the potential consequences.

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Brent Shearer