Early Childhood

For Young Kids, Interactive Devices No Substitute for Parent Connection

By Christina A. Samuels — October 30, 2014 5 min read
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Cross-posted from Digital Education

Many parents are accustomed to seeing their toddlers slip into a seemingly magical, eyes-glazed-over spell as soon as they lock on to a digital game, video, or show on a cellphone, tablet, or TV screen.

But as their children become transfixed, parents are left to ponder the obvious—are the fun and often flashy images, narratives, and gameplay of any real educational value, or are they just empty entertainment?

A new guideline for parents about children’s “screen use,” released Thursday, dissects the available research and warns that many of the the “2-D” experiences provided by TV, tablets, and smartphones don’t provide the kind of social interaction and real-world learning that proves especially beneficial to infants and toddlers—unless parents are engaged in that activity along with their children.

The paper, titled “Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight” isn’t advocating for one form of parent-to-child interaction, whether its print- or screen-based, said Rachel Barr, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University, and a co-author of the document. Instead, it points to research emphasizing the importance of a rich, interactive experience. Many parents wrongly assume that screen-based learning will take care of much of that interactivity for them, Barr points out. They’re probably less likely to assume that of print resources, she noted.

“It doesn’t matter what the devices are,” or what the learning resource is, Barr said. “The involvement itself is the critical piece.”

That interactivity should also be appropriately selective, she noted. If the features presented in an on-screen game or other resource are just “additional and peripheral,” Barr said, “it can be overwhelming.”

The guide was written by Barr and Claire Lerner, the director of strategic initiatives at Zero to Three, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on early childhood development. Their paper attempts to offer a research-based guideline for parents on the benefits and downsides of exposing young children to screen time, via cellphones, computers, and television.

Those tools and devices, of course, are everywhere, and children are widely exposed to them. Children from birth to age two, on average, watch 55 minutes of television per day, the report estimates. Thirty-eight percent of all children under 2 years old have used mobile devices—compared with just 10 percent two years ago.

And when parents are not engaged with children, the impact of screen experiences is not a positive one, the authors say.

“There is no research showing that when children younger than 2 years old use these devices independently, it enhances their development,” the report concludes. Screen media becomes a tool for learning, the authors say, when adults allowing the use weigh the proper “content and context.”

Specifically, learning through screen media is likely to occur when children use content that is appropriately geared toward their age group, and if it is interactive, such as when parents are engaged and talking to children about what they’re seeing and responding to children’s actions.

How can parents boost the odds that the time that their children spend using technology actually helps them? The authors offer several recommendations, including:

  • Limit viewing time to allow more time for play in the “real, 3-D world.” Research shows children learn more quickly through interactions with parents and other caregivers in the actual, physical world, the authors say.
  • Help children connect what they see on screen to the real world. One option is to play games with children using objects similar to what they see on screen, and to label physical objects that children have seen on screen. Doing so can provide a critical “transfer of learning,” in which infants and toddlers apply knowledge to their real-world experiences.
  • When children are watching TV, parents need to stay involved. Parents should watch videos with children, ask questions, and provide descriptions of what’s being shown, promoting a “language rich, socially interactive” experience.
  • Limit the time that a TV is playing in the background when children are present. Exposure to background TV is linked with a negative effect on children’s language and cognitive development and executive functioning skills, research shows. (Related advice: Turn the TV off when nobody’s watching.)
  • Choose content carefully. Programs in which on-screen characters speak directly to children and ask for active participation are linked to language development and other skills, the authors say. Watching commercially produced DVDs directed at young children tend to be associated with poorer language development, the paper finds.
  • Avoid fast-paced programs. Exposure to fast-paced programs can negatively affect children’s executive functioning skills. Very young children find it especially difficult to understand fantastical pieces of stories that are not “grounded in their everyday experience,” the authors say.

In many households, the challenge of restricting or regulating youngsters’ experiences with on-screen activity is obvious, Lerner told Education Week. Many young children quickly become attached to online games and videos—and those forms of technology seem to be everywhere, in homes and away from them.

“It’s a part of the fabric of most families’ lives these days,” Lerner said. For children, “there’s a natural desire and curiosity to see how they work.”

It follows that the temptation for parents dealing with a disruptive child is to “just hand kids their cellphone,” Lerner said. “It gets kids through that difficult moment.”

But the bottom line, she said, is that screen time “should be limited. You want the majority of [children’s] time spent with real-world interaction.”

That sort of rich interaction is not likely to occur when parents slip into the habit of simply leaving the television on in the background, as they and their children go about other things, Barr noted.

“Background TV is not benign,” Barr said. It “can disrupt play. It makes play less complex. And it draws parents’ attention away from the child.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.