What babies watch on television or computers or other screens doesn’t teach them anything they couldn’t learn in the real world. In some cases, so-called “screen time” can do more harm than good — distracting a child and making him less likely to finish a task or solve a problem.
So why not just take screens away from little kids?
Because screens are everywhere your child is going to be in life, says Rachel Barr, one of the lead authors on a report out last month from Zero to Three, a nonprofit group providing parents with information on early development. It’s better for parents to help their kids learn to use screens wisely than to try to bar them altogether, Barr says.
Barr’s research summarized much of what science has found about how infants learn from two-dimensional screens since television programs like Teletubbies and The Wiggles first started targeting programming to infants in the 1990s.
Barr, an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University who has studied those programs since their beginnings, wanted to know how well babies take information from the two-dimensional world — like a television screen or, nowadays, a tablet or mobile phone — and use it in the real world.
The answer? Not as well as they do when taking information from real people or objects.
In her report, Barr noted a series of studies that tracked two different groups of 2 t0 2 1/2 year olds trying to find a hidden toy. One group watched a live video monitor as a person hid a stuffed dog in the next room. The other watched the scene unfold directly through a window. Almost all the children who watched the through the window directly found the toy. Among the kids who watched on TV, only half succeeded.
“It’s not to say that they can’t learn something (from screens), it’s just that they don’t learn as much,” Barr said in an interview.
For parents trying to maximize what their kids will glean from screen time, Barr offered this advice: Limit viewing time to allow for lots of time to play in the real world. Make watching TV a socially interactive experience. Provide descriptions of what they’re seeing. Focus on the story and less on the technology. Choose what they watch carefully, making sure it shows characters that can be role models.
Approach screen time with kids like you would a book, Barr said.
“You wouldn’t just give a young child a book and hope they get everything from it,” she said. “The same could be said for a mobile device or a screen.”
Don’t leave a young child alone with technology, she said — babies figure things out more slowly on their own. Help them bridge the gap between the 2D and 3D worlds. If you see a pet on the screen, compare it to your family’s pet. As they get older, add questions.
Barr hopes parents will be aware of how their young children see them using screens. Catching up with a friend while taking your infant on a walk might seem like a good use of time, but Barr says it might be a missed opportunity for a parent to point out something in the real world — like the birds singing or a leaf falling.
“All these things that just used to be very commonplace when we were walking around without our mobile devices, (are) sometimes being lost,” she said.
And stay away from background TV that’s not geared toward children. Research is showing that can be really problematic for kids, Barr said.
A loud noise — like the buzzer on a game show or laughter on a sitcom — can distract a baby from his play. It’s a double whammy for the kid, Barr said. His attention will be interrupted, and his parent’s will too.