Screen time for small kids: education or entertainment?

Posted on May 8, 2018 at 6:00 am

by Rachel Edmondson

I want to start this post with a promise and a disclaimer.

First, I promise I am not going to tell you to never ever let your kids watch TV, play a video game, or use a tablet.

Second, I’m also not going to give you concrete answers on how you should handle screen time with your family. So, if you want to know exactly how many minutes or hours a day your little one should be allowed to be in front of a screen, I’m going to encourage you to check out the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

That said, a couple of months ago, I got the opportunity to attend a training about kids and screen time, and I’ve been thinking about what I learned ever since. Some of the information wasn’t surprising. I think most people are aware that we are spending a large amount of time in front of screens. There was also newer research that I hadn’t heard before, and some of it has some pretty fascinating implications for how we use screens with kids.

One of the first things the presenter mentioned was that before we look at research, or assess how we should apply the research, we need to acknowledge what our screen time goals are.

How we approach screen time should vary depending on whether screen time is meant for education or entertainment. Understandably, the initial response of many parents is that they want it to be both. Separating these two purposes can be very helpful, and in some ways a bit freeing. What it takes to entertain a child is vastly different than what it takes to educate a child.

What makes screen time educational?

Media has a history of trying to convince us that all kid’s shows and apps are educational. While they do put educational information in them, that does not mean they are actually serving that purpose.

In fact, research shows that young children learning language do not learn from screens. Humans are wired to be relational, and our littlest kids need a live person interacting with them if they are going to learn. In fact, it isn’t until between 36–42 months of age that kids actually start to learn much from screens. And even then they still learn faster, and have better retention, when they are taught through live interaction.

In some ways, this is hard to believe. When we watch our kids, we see them picking up things from shows and apps, and we might even use these observations to make us feel better about putting our child in front of a screen. However, we almost always overestimate the amount of learning taking place.

I found one of the reasons kids don’t learn well from screens particularly fascinating. Researchers have discovered that young kids can’t easily move between dimensions. When they see information in a two-dimensional format, like on a TV screen, they are not able to connect it to their three-dimensional world. This means they are not connecting the fire truck on the TV screen with the fire truck they saw driving by their house. The ability to make these connections is called symbolic understanding, and it usually begins around age 3—exactly the same age when research shows kids are able to start learning from screens.

So what does this mean? It means that if you are using screens with children under the age of three, you should be thinking of screen time as entertainment, not education.

But what about our kids over 3 years old? How do we move screen time from entertainment to education? Research shows that kids learn best when they are actively involved, engaged, interacting socially and when the content is meaningful. These factors all apply to media as well, so we can support children’s media use by using it intentionally and paying attention to the three Cs of media use: Content, Context, and Child.

When it comes to content, here are some things to look for when choosing material for kids to view:

  • Familiar characters – Kids grow emotional bonds with familiar characters and see them as a trusted source of information.
  • Repetition – Kids thrive on repetition and are able to learn something new each time.
  • Audience participation – When a show asks a question and pauses for kids to respond, it draws them in. (However, kids are not fooled; they know it’s not actually interactive.)
  • Songs – Music is great for memorization. Keep in mind, songs should be used intentionally and directly attached to content.

Kid’s will learn more from media when parents help give them context. The best way for media to be educational is to use it like you would books. Sit down with your child and use it together. Help them understand what they are seeing and help them relate it to their lives. Also, a child’s need for social interaction is incredibly strong, and using media together helps meet that need.

Finally, customize the material to your child. As a parent, you know best what will interest them and also what might prove to be distracting instead of educational.

Of course, as kids get older, technology use will continue to grow, and they will continue to need adult support to use media in a healthy manner. Some additional tips for media use include:

  • No TVs in the bedroom (There is research to back this up!)
  • Model appropriate media use
  • Whenever possible, do not let media interrupt social interactions
  • Make sure your child learns about digital citizenship and online safety
  • Create a family media plan

Let’s end with some good news.

We do not need to feel guilty about letting our kids watch television. There is nothing wrong with entertaining our children. Just because their favorite show is not actually providing much educational value, does not mean it is bad to let them watch it. Studies show that screen time is not detrimental to kids if the content being viewed is age-appropriate, used intentionally (background TV has been shown to be detrimental), and used in moderation (screen time should not be replacing quality interaction between the child and parent.)

So the next time you put your child in front of the TV, or hand them your tablet to play a game, stop and think about whether they are using media for education or entertainment. And then remember, if it’s done right, either way is ok!

Rachel Edmondson

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