As technology advances, devices with screens get more sophisticated, cheaper, and, for parents, more worrisome. The pressure to plop the kid in front of an iPad for hours on end is strong, but so is the sense of guilt that pushes some parents to ban screens altogether. The correct response seems to be somewhere between laissez-faire and digital teetotalism, and it’s up to parents to figure out how much and what kind of screen time is best for their kids.
A good place to start developing nuanced rules for screen time is dispelling myths that, while accepted as conventional wisdom, are actually closer to old wives’ tales. Here are four misconceptions that need to go away so parents can introduce kids to technology in a responsible way.
Myth #1: Interactive Learning Apps Always Help Kids Learn Faster
There’s no shortage of apps that purportedly help kids learn, but they’re not all created equal. Some developers, out to make a quick buck from parents, have little to no understanding of how children actually learn. That means apps that are labeled as educational to assuage parental fears may actually be no better than addictive puzzle games like Toy Blast.
Consider a Vanderbilt University study that attempted to establish if interacting with a learning app via swiping or tapping helped preschool children learn. Using a university-built word-learning app, researchers found that while girls did benefit from tapping a screen for visual rewards, boys did not learn as much. In fact, boys were more likely to tap willy-nilly without prompting.
This discrepancy makes sense when you consider how boys and girls develop differently. Between 2 and 5 years old, girls have better impulse control and better coordination. The app served them well, but it depended on skills boys didn’t have. They likely spent more time concentrating on the dexterity challenges and less time learning what the app was ostensibly meant to teach.
The lesson: Apps labeled as educational that lack age-appropriate learning mechanisms don’t do much for developing minds.
Myth #2: Introducing a Child to Technology Early Helps Prepare Them for the Future
Lots of parents introduce tech to their kids early in life in an effort to build skills that will help them in an increasingly tech-driven future. Unfortunately, that can mean they neglect crucial interpersonal skills that kids need to develop before the age of 6. No matter how sci-fi the future becomes, children will still need to develop emotional intelligence and communication skills that can’t be built in front of a screen.
Interpersonal skills require interactions with real, emotional human beings that affect how young brains develop. For a kid’s brain to be optimally wired for interpersonal skills, those interactions need to occur during the first crucial years. That’s why a pioneering researcher in the psychology of computers, Dr. Tim Lynch, recommends parents wait until their kids reach Kindergarten before introducing them to computing in any form.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, an early introduction to tech appears to be a threat to kids’ physical development as well. British researchers found that early exposure to screens had an adverse effect on a child’s dexterity. The effect was so profound that some children were unable to hold a pencil.
The lesson: To support the development of your kids’ emotions and dexterity, wait until school to introduce screens into their lives.
Myth #3: Screen Time Is Inherently Bad
While screen time panic has reached a fever pitch, there is a growing body of research that says screen time in and of itself isn’t so bad, and that a thoughtful parental approach can make it a positive in a child’s life.
One of the first major studies of time spent in front of the television found that engaging with a TV show can be beneficial as long as the content is educational. For instance, researchers found that watching Sesame Street was as beneficial for some kids as years of preschool education. And watching shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood correlates with increased emotional intelligence in kids who watch regularly.
But research also suggests that it’s not enough for parents to simply place their kid in front of a screen and hope they learn something. Screen time is much for helpful when parents are a partner helping their kids understand and interact with the content.
A Georgetown study found that kids learned better on a puzzle app when they were coached by an adult than when they followed an on-screen tutorial. Help from adults was a “social scaffolding” that helped kids learn. Studies like this are what helped define the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on screen time. These stress parental involvement in media consumption, including a personalized Family Media Use Plan developed in concert with a pediatrician.
So, what is actually bad about screen time? When screen-fed media is overconsumed by kids, they tend toward inactivity. The blue light that screens emit can also interfere with sleep patterns. So, the smart parenting solution is to set time limits for kids that include at least an hour of screen-free time before bed.
Myth #4: Video Games Are Inherently Bad
“Video Games” writ large have received a bad rap from parents, who only see mindless button-mashing, and politicians, who only see gratuitous violence. But conflating a game like Minecraft with a game like Red Dead Redemption ignores the realities of how video games affect kids.
It is true that the child psychology community is conflicted regarding the effect of violence in video games. But not all video games are violent. And besides, the reason violent video games might lead to violence is that they act as simulators. By selecting the right games, parents can turn the power of simulation into something positive for their kids.
Studies have shown that fast-paced video games can increase reading speed in dyslexic children, that strategy-based games promote problem-solving skills, and that world-building games like Minecraft promote creativity. Finally, controlling the main character in a video game prompts kids to see the world through their eyes and can help build emotional intelligence. Like books and TV shows, video games can also be used as learning tools.
But as with television and books, video games benefit from parental involvement. The problem of antisocial behavior connected to gaming is likely couched in the fact that parents allow kids to go into their virtual worlds alone and without guidance. In fact, parents would be better off joining them in those worlds, regardless of console choice.
Kids benefit from parents who recognize the achievement in mastering a game, and parents will be more empathetic and less wary of their kids’ gaming behavior if they recognize the effort they’re making to achieve a difficult task — even if that task is in a digital world.