More Than Minutes and Limits: 3 Ingredients for Healthy Media Use in the Preschool Years

“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 “2015 moment” this was: My nearly 3-year-old grappling with the devastating fact that not all screens are touch screens.

The youngest among us are clearly no strangers to technology. 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, young children’s digital lives are 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.

Looking for guidance in the digital age

Raising these tiny digital pioneers 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 a ton 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.”

Part of the shame is fueled by warnings about the dangers of screen time from the field of child health and development. There are clear risks associated with a poor media diet which is why the AAP has long recommended no screen time for children under two and limited screen time during the preschool years. But the reality of digital childhood is getting farther and farther away from these screen-free recommendations. In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics is likely going to be softening their recommendations about screen time next year. They announced last month that “In a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” our policies must evolve or become obsolete.”

So in the absence of clear guidance what are we to do? The good news is that the more we study, the more clear it becomes that while children’s first drawings might be of an emoji or they see 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 no matter the focus of the study or the technology in question.

Maybe focusing on what we do know - the core ingredients that children need to thrive – can throw some much-needed light on the path ahead:


1. Relationships. Children learn best in the context of relationships.

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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. 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.”

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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.

For example, compare this app:

To this more open ended one:


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 they encourage imagination and exploration? Do they encourage perspective taking and creative problem solving? Do they create a storyline that children can expand on offline? If so, let the children play.

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Finally, think beyond apps and games. Check out these 5 ways to use media creatively with your child.


3. Boundaries. What, when and where still matter.

Children have always needed us to “map the outer boundaries of their independence.” Media are no different. 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?

Minutes still matter but here a few additional suggestions of where boundaries make sense based on prioritizing relationships and play:

  • 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 should be a small part of a child's day. The AAP guidance of one hour a day in the preschool years continues to be a helpful guidepost.
  • 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 more distracted 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.