With more than 40 million students in US public schools affected by school closures due to COVID-19, young children may be having more screen time today than ever before. In this new era in which screen time may be used as a poor, but often necessary substitute for academic instruction, families have the opportunity to be conscientious of the type and quality of screen time when choosing educational apps and media for their children.
One of our favorite pieces of advice around screen time comes from NPR Education reporter and Art of Screentime author, Anya Kamenetz. She recommends, “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.” Yet when a parent is working from home, it may not be possible for parents to use media with their children.
Digital media is an increasingly important component of a child’s life, averaging 2.5 hours per day between ages 2 and 4 (Common Sense Media Report, 2017). The reality is that parents are increasingly relying on apps and other types of digital media to entertain their kids. Currently there is an “app gap”, meaning that existing commercial apps and games lag far behind the state-of-the-art in academic research. As a result, children are spending hours per day consuming “digital candy”.
Recently, a Huffington Post reporter consulted with a number of experts about how parents can find digital media that is more educational than “digital candy” (Bologna, 2020). Experts shared that “parents should get in the habit of doing a little digging on apps or games before downloading them,” including considering the developers background and whether they have conducted any research. The experts also recommended that parents take a few minutes to play the game or app themselves to see if it’s a good fit for their kids.
To address the need for high-quality early learning tools, my organization, Cognitive ToyBox (CTB) is transforming how children use touchscreen games. CTB is closing the app gap by developing evidence-based learning games. CTB helps parents and early childhood educators to replace unproductive screen time (“digital candy”) at home with high-quality early learning games that children love to play. Best of all, evidence-based apps give children a better shot at starting school ready to succeed.
Cognitive ToyBox’s products take a radically different approach from other “educational” apps in the App Store (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). Most of the 80,000 other apps focus on reinforcing ABCs, 123s, colors, and other early fundamentals through rote learning and memorization, often with dubious success. Research on one of the most commercially successful “educational” media products, Baby Einstein, shows that young children failed to learn any new words from the product (DeLoache et al., 2010).
In contrast, Cognitive ToyBox develops apps that help children learn-to-learn (L2L), meaning that we teach high-level principles so children learn more efficiently even when they are not using the app. L2L is a foundational principle of cognitive science. Compelling research demonstrates that teaching children L2L concepts earlier than they discover them on their own can accelerate early learning (Smith et al., 2002; Samuelson, 2002; Perry et al., 2010).
Figure 1 depicts Cognitive ToyBox’s suite of learning-to-learn apps, which are based on child development research.
Screen time is often thought to be antithetical to children’s learning and development. But at CTB, our team of developers use technology to distill complicated research experiments into self-directed touchscreen games for children. Because 81% of Americans own smartphones, mobile-first digital interventions could provide more equitable access for all children. As families consider their plans for digital media while quarantined and beyond, I encourage families to reframe the debate of “how much screen time” into “what quality screen time” you give to your children.