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Three Ways to Get the Most Out of Screen Time for Kids

“Broken!” Miles exclaimed. “It’s broken!” He said again in an increasingly frustrated voice.

It took me a couple of minutes to catch up. My son was positioned directly in front of the TV, trying diligently to move a character on Daniel Tiger with his index finger. I soon realized what he was trying to do and was struck by what a digital age moment this was: My nearly 3-year-old grappling with the devastating fact that not all screens are touch screens.

Good old-fashioned television is still the foundation of a preschooler’s media diet, clocking in at an average of 3.5 hours a day. But increasingly, screen time for kids is interactive and mobile. We know that one-quarter of 3-year-olds go online daily and a recent study, albeit with a small sample, found that ¾ of four-year-olds had their own mobile devices.

My preschooler is not alone in thinking that this brave new world can be navigated with a swipe of his finger.

Little kids dressed like superheroes playing with tablet

What is the best screen time for kids?

Raising our tiny digital trailblazers can feel like taking a long walk in the dark. While we have a lot of evidence on the impact of television on children, we don’t have decades of data yet on the impact of interactive media on the youngest among us. The technology is just too new. What we do have is, not surprisingly, a mixed bag. I wrote a post on raising e-readers that demonstrates the take home message of “it depends” that emerges from a lot of the latest research.

It doesn’t help that this long walk in the dark feels even darker when accompanied by shame and guilt. I once had a parent say to me “I feel like a failure on a daily basis. The minute I hand over my phone to my kid I start watching the clock. We are both stressed out and I am not even quite sure what I am protecting him from.”

The good news is that the more we study, the more clear it becomes that while children might see a TV as a giant broken iPad – what they need to grow up happy and healthy isn’t changing all that much. There is a clear list of protective factors that keep bubbling to the surface in every study of screen time for kids. So what are they?

1. Relationships. The best screen time for kids is with you.

While interactive media has the potential to address the “video deficit,” we are far from an era where we can plug our children in and walk away. The video deficit refers to the fact that very young children (under 2-3 years old) learn much better from live demonstrations than from video. Initial evidence demonstrates that children may be able to learn more from interactive media than passive media.

This doesn’t mean that engaging with interactive media is better than interacting with live adults. Ideally, interactive media should be used in addition to or along with as opposed to instead of quality time with caring adults. For children whose screen time is currently dominated by solitary passive media use, educational and age-appropriate interactive technology may be a very promising alternative.

That said, learning is intensely social. This is why co-viewing and co-engagement are such giant protective factors when it comes to screen time for kids. So even if an App says all the words out loud, pulling your child onto your lap and getting lost in the story together is still the best way to raise a reader.

Of course, the reality of parenting is that sometimes screen time is your window of opportunity to make dinner, bathe yourself, get ready for a second work shift, or get your other child down for a nap. My first son slept like a dream. My second son needed to be wrestled down for a nap like a wild raccoon. Screen time was the only way we made it through the first 6 months safely. So if sitting down next to your child isn’t always possible – ask them questions about the show they watched, read books related to the themes of their favorite app, or use Legos to recreate their favorite game in real life.

Find ways to bring digital experiences back into the context of your relationship.

2. Play. Children learn best with “minds on, hands on, feelings on.”

While memorizing numbers and letters might cause adults to beam with pride and marvel at their child’s tangible learning, the real work of the early years is practicing the messy, complex and harder-to-see life skills. Things like emotional regulation, creative problem solving, persistence, empathy, negotiation and communication, impulse control, and other skills that fall under the umbrella of executive function. The good news? Children learn these skills in the context of warm, caring relationships and by doing what they love best: playing.

Unfortunately, too many apps take a “drill and practice” approach to learning. For example, the majority of educational literacy apps focus on very basic skills like naming letters, sounds, and words. While being rewarded for knowing your numbers isn’t bad, hours on end of this activity pales in comparison to the kind of rich literacy building play that children could be engaged in when they create signs for the door of their castle or sing songs together and learn new words.

Resist the urge to download apps that operate only under what founding editor of The Children’s Technology Review Warren Buckleitner calls “smother mode.” Think rigid instructions and constantly being rewarded for performing prescribed tasks. Instead, try to find apps and games that honor the spirit of free play. Do your child’s apps:

  • Encourage imagination, focus, and exploration?
  • Encourage perspective taking and creative problem solving?
  • Create a storyline that children can expand on offline? If so, let the children play.

Here are some great sites that help you find good apps for your kids. Also, check out these 5 ways to use media creatively with your child.

3. Boundaries. When it comes to screen time for kids – what, when, and where still matter.

The best media are age-appropriate and don’t get in the way of the first two ingredients – play and relationships. Is media enhancing these? Getting in the way?

Here additional suggestions of where boundaries make sense:

  • What: Choose age-appropriate media. Media stories influence behavior and play – the best programs have a narrow age range. Look at Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review for ideas.
  • Where: Carve out plenty of screen free spaces and times for connection. You could start by focusing on meals, bedtime, or car rides.
  • When: Screen time for kids should be a small part of their day.
  • When: Avoid media before bed and in bed – screens are sleep disruptors for children.
  • When: Reduce background media while children are playing. Children’s are distracted by background media even if it doesn’t look like they are watching.
  • When: Reflect on your own media habits. Your children learn more from your actions than from your words.