Digital media is changing so fast, developmental psychologists have a hard time keeping up with how it affects young children’s learning — especially as kids spend more and more time with screens.
Not much is known about how such media experiences affect infant brains, according to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant and Child Lab at Temple University, who spoke on a recent online panel sponsored by Child Trends, a nonprofit research group.
What they do know: Done well, digital experiences can enhance children’s knowledge and skills. Done poorly, they can hurt.
So before you download yet another so-called educational app — or purchase an “Apptivity Seat,” a controversial new product that pairs an iPad holder with a newborn/toddler seat — here are a few points to consider:
Human beings, especially children, learn best by interacting with other people and the world around them, Hirsh-Pasek said. So a child sitting passively in front of a TV, tablet or other screen … not so good, even though the panelists, as parents themselves, understand that’s hard to avoid all together.
Hirsh-Pasek cringed when the moderator held up a photo of the Apptivity Seat, as did the other two panelists.
“Each year, you think it can’t get worse, and it did,” Hirsh-Pasek said.
But an e-book that sparks discussions between parent and child, or videos that take them to places they would likely never be able to visit — those are the areas where digital media holds a lot of promise, the panelists said.
Hirsh-Pasek also pointed to research out of Latin America suggesting that good electronic tablet games can even help children be ready for school.
For children under 2, the three panelists largely agreed with the American Council of Pediatrics, which recommends no TV or video viewing, saying the existing studies show it has no benefit and may hinder children’s development of language.
For children over two, the panelists counseled parents to pay a lot of attention to the quality of what their child is watching, not just the quantity.
In general, the most interactive the experience, the better. But it has to be quality interaction, too. An e-book with too many hot buttons, for example, can distract children rather than help them absorb the book’s content.
Parents also need to watch how they use technology around their children.
Is the TV on while children are playing nearby?
Panelist Lisa Guerney, author of “Screen Time: How Electronic Media — From Baby Videos to Educational Software — Affects Your Young Child,” said one study suggests that affects how children play — causing them to jump from one toy to another faster than they otherwise would.
Do parents regularly interrupt a conversation with their child to check a text message or answer a cell phone call? Hirsh-Pasek said preliminary results from her own research say that can keep your child from learning new words.
“Active, engaged, meaningful and interactive,” she said. “That’s the tweet for today if we want to put the education back into educational media.”
Video of the full panel is available here: