The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) released new recommendations this week limiting children’s screen time to less than one hour a day for kids age 2-5 (and no screen time for kids under age 18 months). However the ubiquitous existence of electronic media makes exposure unavoidable.
It's true that too much media time interferes with social-emotional development, so we do need to limit kids use of electronic media. However, new research shows that well-designed interactive media can enhance learning and increase reading skills in all age groups. When used while interacting with a parent, or for reading practice, electronic media are a beneficial tool. However, it’s difficult to distinguish good multimedia games from those that may interfere with development because the “educational” tag is used to describe virtually every app. And you can't trust the app store to tell you which games are educational. After all, McDonald’s has an “artisan” sandwich, so clearly we can’t trust marketing executives’ labels!
Nobody can put a precise time limit on screen time for kids because not all screen time is created equal. Here are five tips to guide you to find constructive smartphone apps, tablet games and e-books:
1. Look for apps that create a “minds-on” experience – Activities that require thinking and intellectual manipulation, like placing puzzle pieces or solving math problems keep a child mentally active. Simply swiping a screen may be physically active but “hands-on” is not the same as “minds-on”. When interaction is limited to moving objects around, then it’s just entertainment.
2. Test-drive the app yourself – There’s no better way to know what your child is experiencing than to play a game yourself. For a second opinion or when you need a quick recommendation, check Common Sense Media for helpful reviews.
3. Identify the educational “goal” – When you evaluate an app’s worth ask if you can identify a learning goal. For some games the goal is as transparent as learning to relate a letter with its sound or to help memorize math facts. Others may have more informal learning goals like developing creativity and imagination.
4. Choose E-books with relevant interactive features – E-books with sound and motion effects that bring the story to life enhance a child’s comprehension and word learning. But studies have found that embedded games, activities and even dictionary pop-up features are too distracting to young kids and actually interfere with learning.
5. Give kids the tools to make good media choices – Teach digital citizenship to older kids. Empower children to ask questions and think critically about the technologies and media they use. Do you notice your daughter acts a bit snottier after watching certain shows? Don’t just ban her watching – ask her if she notices how she feels. Talk to your son about how he feels after playing a violent game. Does he feel tired and cranky? What about when he plays an interactive game with puzzles to solve. Is he happier then? And be sure to model appropriate use yourself.