5 Science-Based Tips to Guide Kids’ Media Use

5 Science-based tips to guide kids’ media use

Are you looking for Mom’s Choice Awards-approved apps for kids? Check here.

Wendy Hunter, MDWendy Hunter, MD
Pediatrician | Mom | Founder of BabyScience.info
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Do you feel like a bad parent when you distract your toddler with a smartphone app while waiting at a store? It’s not so bad; after all, it is an educational toy. Right?!

The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) has long recommended limiting children’s screen time to less than two hours a day (and no screen time for kids under age two), however the ubiquitous existence of electronic media makes exposure unavoidable. To make things worse, the “educational” tag is used to describe virtually every app, so it’s difficult to distinguish good multimedia games from those that may interfere with development.

5 Science-Based Tips to Guide Kids' Media UseAnd studies have shown that too much media time can interfere with social-emotional development. This is particularly important if a parent is frequently using TV or electronic games to distract a young child. Kids need to practice patience and learn to self-regulate their craziness. There is a critical time before about age five when kids learn how to behave by interacting with family members and strangers in different situations. That’s how they learn to sit still so they can get through a day at kindergarten without a meltdown. Further, kids’ media time may displace playtime and interfere with developing physical skills like climbing and building that are associated with later success in science and math.

New research shows that well-designed interactive media actually enhance learning and increase reading skills in all age groups. So we really can’t put a precise time limit on screen time for kids. Not all screen time is created equal. Fortunately we have emerging scientific evidence that can guide parents to choose constructive smartphone apps, tablet games and e-books. And when used while interacting with a parent, or for reading practice, electronic media are a beneficial tool.

A review of recent studies provides the following tips for parents:

  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.

Lastly, don’t trust the app store to tell you which games are educational. After all, McDonald’s now has an “artisan” sandwich, so clearly we can’t trust marketing executives’ labels!

What electronic apps for kids do you like, and why?

Are you looking for Mom’s Choice Awards-approved apps for kids? Check here.

This post was originally posted on babyscience.info.

Wendy Hunter, MDAbout Wendy Hunter, MD

Dr. Wendy Hunter, MD is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at UC San Diego and practices pediatrics in the emergency department at Rady Children’s Hospital. She blogs at BabyScience on the science behind scary (but normal) baby symptoms and quirky kid behaviors. You can also find Dr. Hunter on Twitter and Facebook.



0 Comments on “5 Science-Based Tips to Guide Kids’ Media Use”

  1. My son uses PBSKids.org which makes both of us happy because he loves playing the games and I love that he’s learning at the same time!

  2. Great article! I always feel bad that my daughter uses the phone a lot but at the same time I think she’s learned a lot from it. At age 2 she was only saying a couple words and not putting words together. I started downloading educational games but she wasn’t too interested and when she started watching YouTube videos of other kids playing with toys she loved them and learned lots of words and putting them together. Probably not the most educational videos but at least it helped her. But I definetly have to check what she’s watching, even some of those videos made by kids are not the most kid friendly.

  3. Such a great article but I also agree time should be limited on electronics etc so children have time to just play and interact with other people.

  4. I think there is a time for everything but a Pre-School kid spending most of his day online is extreme i think but it happens. When is the teaching and learning of basic skills being taught to the child.I think because of the existence of electronic these kids are missing out on many of life’s basics that we learned as children.

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