Can Screens Help Young Kids Learn?

Both Common Sense Media and the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in on screen time for young kids last week. With mobile devices proliferating the market, how much screen time makes sense for the little ones? Experts say it depends on the content and the context.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. That’s certainly the case for kids and babies who, just like their parents, are using smartphones and tablets more than ever.

A new Common Sense Media study found 38 percent of toddlers under 2 have used a mobile device. That number is up from 10 percent in 2011, when Common Sense conducted the first national survey of parents of children birth to age 8.

It’s worth noting that kids aren’t necessarily plugged in more than they were before. The total average time kids are using screen media actually dropped 21 minutes, leaving the average amount of screen time a little under two hours. While TV is still the predominant way kids consume media, the use of mobile devices is on the rise. The average time kids spend using mobile devices tripled to 15 minutes per day.

There are a lot of reasons for the shifts, the most obvious being access. The study found 75 percent of kids age 8 and under have a mobile device in their home, compared to 52 percent in 2011. The digital divide persists; 63 percent of higher-income families own a tablet, compared with 20 percent of lower-income families. But that’s up from just 2 percent two years ago. Plus, when lower-income kids do have access to a mobile device, there’s almost no gap in how often they use educational content.

Another reason for the jump among our youngest techies? Mobile devices and the apps on them are becoming more intuitive. (For a clear illustration of that fact, just watch this baby try to use a magazine like an iPad.)

“iPhones and tablets are game changers, because they’re so easy to use. While there was some floor on how young you could go with computers and video games, a young child who can touch a picture can open an app, or swipe the screen,” Vicky Rideout, the author of the report, told the New York Times.

Are all these screens okay for kids? According new guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it depends on how they’re using them. Some things haven’t changed; the AAP still says no screen media for youngsters under two and discourages screens in kids’ bedrooms.

However, the guidelines did become more nuanced. New to the guidelines is the idea of a healthy “media diet,” one with limited but purposeful screen time. Content that’s interactive, social or educational is preferable over passive media, where kids just sit and watch. “The amount of time spent with screens is one issue, and content is another,” the AAP wrote in a statement about its new guidelines.

As NPR points out, Skype or FaceTime are some of those activities that are screen-based, interactive, and social. Plus, they have potential to show young kids the links between their onscreen experiences and their offline lives, something that’s crucial for learning.

Even with the new guidelines, managing toddlers’ media worlds is still uncharted territory. Pittsburgh is home to a number of leading organizations that are providing guidance for parents, educators and media makers in using technology in ways that are developmentally appropriate for young kids.

Fred Rogers revolutionized educational TV programming for kids, so it’s only fitting that the Fred Rogers Center has the same goal for the 21st century media. The center is providing national leadership on this issue. In 2012, the center partnered with NAEYC to release a position statement on using technology and interactive media in early childhood programs. The center’s Early Learning Environment (Ele) is an online support system that provides resources and guidance for digital media literacy to parents, family childcare providers, and educators.

To help close the digital divide among Pittsburgh kids, Baby Promise is connecting underserved families with hand-held technology through home visits and summer day camps. The curriculum is balanced out with swim classes, yoga, and healthy meals.

Lastly, a prime example of using media in an active, multilayered way is Message from Me, a project from CREATE Lab, the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University, and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. Using email, digital cameras and microphones in kiosks set up in classrooms, kids 3 to 5 record their daily school experiences and then send them to their parents.

“The technology is great. But the goal of the project—to increase communication among parents, teachers and young children and improve language development—is what’s primary,” Michelle Figlar, who heads up PAEYC, told Remake Learning in October.

Figlar’s sentiment echos that of the AAP and other media experts. Technology for young kids is best when it’s used for the things we know have helped kids learn even before the existence of screens—communicating, and engaging with the world around them.


Photo / Brad Flickinger

Published November 07, 2013