Parents may use devices to educate and entertain their kids, or to give themselves a much-needed break. On the face of it, that behavior is fine. “We used to put kids in front of a TV,” Dr. Hirsh-Pasek says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to balance it.” She refers to apps and fun zones as “digital candy” — the message being they’re great in moderation, and great for keeping the kids busy while you’re busy, but not something they should ever gorge on. “But our child loves this’ is not an excuse to let them constantly use a screen,” she says.
According to the University of Michigan research team, an effective way to moderate children’s screen time is to limit according to location, not by hour-long blocks. “It's easier to say no smartphones at the table than to be watching the clock,” says Dr. April Khadijah Inniss, one of the study’s authors.
Make it a ‘double feature’
Parents who allow screen time should also “co-view media with children,” according to the AAP — meaning, they should watch and interact with the content right along with their kids. In practice, however, that can be easier said than done.
“My daughter can watch a mix between educational cartoon style TV and cooking shows, with the occasional 20 minutes on a tablet on the way to school,” says Jared Brown, a graphic designer and parent of a three-year-old daughter. “But screening the content is the issue. Finding new and engaging educational content is hard, and I have to review everything in advance to avoid inappropriate content.”
Dr. Hirsh-Pasek empathizes with busy parents with little time to pre-screen. “Unless you screen every app, there is no quick and dirty way to navigate the space,” she says. Parents may consider blocking objectionable media sources with parental controls, but according to Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, kids today are even interacting with “second-hand screens” — content playing in the background of programs and apps that might have been pre-screened by parents.
A defense against what Dr. Hirsh-Pasek labels “a tsunami” of child-centered apps and programming is to apply a straightforward set of criteria to apps. Used effectively, these criteria can help parents better evaluate what is — and what is not — educational.
An effective app will fit the parent’s definition of the terms “active,” “engaging,” “meaningful” and “socially interactive,” Dr. Hirsh-Pasek says. Beyond these criteria, she advises parents to find apps that present educational topics in engaging formats (like games or puzzles) so learning feels more like playtime than class time.
Once parents have identified suitable apps and shows, the fun can start. “I co-watch certain shows to get my daughter to dance and be excited, and others to make her ask tons of questions,” Brown says. “I even have shows that help her go to sleep, with nighttime themes.”