Harvard Health Publications

iPad apps and screen time for kids: learning or babysitting?

Posted By Nancy Ferrari On May 11, 2012

The other day I saw a mother hand an iPhone to a young baby in a stroller. I cringed because it made me think of how much time my young kids are spending on the iPad and in front of the television.

It’s a dilemma for parents. Is it okay to let your daughter play with your phone so you can get five minutes of quiet in a restaurant, or will that permanently scuttle her attention span?

Ann Densmore, Ed.D., an expert in speech and language development and co-author of Your Successful Preschooler, offers some practical advice for parents. “Screen time is here to stay for young children and we can’t stop it,” she told me. “The world is now inescapably online and digital. Even schools are replacing textbooks with iPads and digital texts. So moms and dads really need to figure out what’s right for their families.”

Data on the risks and benefits of screen time are both limited and conflicting. A small study published in 2010 in the journal Pediatrics suggests that children who spend two or more hours a day watching TV or on the computer are more prone to psychological difficulties. In contrast, iPad apps and games designed for preschoolers seem to offer opportunities for learning. Densmore knows more about this than most because there are several iPad apps that are useful tools in speech and language therapy. But outside of a therapeutic setting, how should parents evaluate the apps their kids play with on mobile devices?

“In my opinion, the goal of a child’s interaction with screen-based games should be to help him or her learn a concept, to formulate and organize ideas, to help with communication, or to develop basic preschool skills,” says Densmore. The keys to beneficial screen time, she explains, are interactivity and adult participation, whether the child is playing a computer game, using an iPad app, or watching TV. A study from the Children’s Media Center at Georgetown University, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology showed that interactivity and adult modeling helped children to learn a task better than passive viewing of the same material.

“A teacher or parent needs to be present to help the child grasp the overall concepts, so the child doesn’t get stuck on the exciting graphics and the fast pace of the program,” says Densmore. “Good apps or games should facilitate conversation between parents and children during this play, not get in the way of it.”

As a speech therapist working with young families, and the mother of two adult daughters, Ann Densmore understands the complexities of daily life with young children. While she doesn’t advocate the use of screen time as a de facto babysitter, she advises parents not to beat themselves up if, on a really tough day, some extra time on the computer, iPad, or in front of the TV helps maintain household peace and parents’ sanity. “Do the best you can to strike a balance. If there ends up being a lot of screen time on a long rainy day, or when a child is sick, try to cut back for the next couple of days.”

Commonsense Media is an organization that offers parents information on kids and media. It offers some useful guidelines for determining the educational value of apps for kids. Although parental attention is often focused these days on mobile devices and gaming systems, don’t forget to pay attention to TV hours. In an alarming October 2011 report, Commonsense Media reminds us that television is the main form of screen time for children between the ages of 0 and 8 years.

In an upcoming blog, Dr. Densmore will share her thoughts on apps she thinks are particularly good for young kids and offer some advice on how to choose and monitor screen time activities.

As for me, I felt like I’d dodged a bullet when recently, on one of those crazy days, I asked my five-year-old son if he’d like the iPad and his response was “No thanks mom, I’d rather go out in the back yard.”

Your Successful Preschooler, published by Jossey-Bass in partnership with Harvard Medical School, offers parents concrete advice and strategies for helping their young children develop the social skills that will set them up for learning and enable them to develop and maintain friendships with more ease.

Related Information: Your Successful Preschooler

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