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The American Academy of Pediatrics’ new screen time guidelines have renewed conversations regarding the topic. How much of the discussion is rooted in research? We review the findings around screen time and early childhood development, helping you make educated decisions regarding your child.
The static nature of TV is not conducive for learning.
Most research on screen time has been conducted with TV. The consensus from researchers is that TV is not beneficial for early learning, but TV is not representative of all types of screen time. Toddlers learn best in contingent environments — that is, environments that provide feedback based on a toddler’s action. TVs do not wait for a child to process information or respond to a question, leaving them without the type of feedback they need for learning.
All screen time is not equal.
Most previous research has conflated TV with “screen time,” but reactive screens that provide feedback have potential to change the debate. For example, researchers have shown that toddlers can learn vocabulary words equally well from a virtual Skype session on a computer screen as they would through an in-person interaction (Roseberry et al., 2014). Where does this leave touchscreen technologies, which are flexible enough to provide contingent feedback based on responses?
Touchscreen technology has the potential to change the debate.
Research with touchscreen devices is limited but promising. A 2016 study demonstrated that 4-6 year olds were able to apply logic puzzle strategies learned from an app in 2D to a real life 3D model (Huber, 2016). Furthermore, there has been some research indicating that apps like Bedtime Math may help promote children’s math achievement (Berkowitz, 2015).
Ultimately, more research is needed to provide definitive recommendations. In the meanwhile, parents may relieve themselves of some screen time guilt, if their child is using a tablet or smartphone rather than watching TV.
Be cognizant of their toddler’s touchscreen activities. Not every touchscreen experience provides a rich learning experience. For example, using a touchscreen as a mini-television with YouTube and NetFlix videos is likely not better than TV. However, if you take the time to choose apps with high quality content, your child may have the opportunity to learn while engaging with the touchscreen.