By Nicole Gregory
When Vickie Ellman couldn’t find her iPhone, she looked for it frantically in her house, her car and her office. Finally she gave up and bought a new one. Then a few months later, she discovered her lost iPhone in her 2-year-old’s crib. “Evie loved that iPhone,” says Ellman. For Christmas, she and her husband gave their daughter a Leapster—a handheld device made for young children with learning games on it—hoping Evie would lose her fascination with her parents’ iPhones. It worked, sort of. “She still knows how to use our phones as well as we do,” says Ellman.
Just like their parents, young children enjoy checking out the newest iPhones, iPads, apps, video games and computer games. The bright, colorful screens and the ability to tap into new worlds of quick-changing imagery accompanied by fun music—it’s all irresistible.
But how do you manage your child’s fierce desire to play with all these many games and devices? After all, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children age 2 and younger not be exposed to TV; in this critical period of brain development, children learn best from human interaction and playing in the tactile, three-dimensional world. TV watching has been linked to attention problems, obesity and aggression.
The answer is that not all gadgets and games are the same, and by paying attention to what children are viewing—and setting time limits on that viewing—parents can direct their kids to ones that offer some benefit and steer clear of those that are inappropriate, or even harmful.
Here are some dos and don’ts:
DO choose interactive games over passive entertainment.
“When you’re making choices about what game or app is right, stop and ask yourself, What does my child have to do to make this app work?” says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a Washington, DC nonprofit organization dedicated to the health and well-being of young children. “We know the most enriching experiences for children are those that involve relationships and activities where they use their bodies and senses, but you have to be real,” she says. “These electronic gadgets are their reality—so choose ones that offer more than just passive entertainment. Stick to the apps that require the child to be creative, to make something happen. The more they are required to use thinking skills, the better.” The app called Doodle Buddy, for instance, allows kids to draw and paint with all kinds of colors, shapes and letters. The popular Wii Fit requires users to react and move quickly in simulations of games like tennis and bowling. Tetris, the falling-block video game, requires strategizing as well as quick hand-eye coordination.
DON’T allow kids to play games that are violent.
Keep young children away from violent television shows or games—or even content they can’t make sense of, says Lerner. “Parents sometimes make an assumption that because children don’t understand what they see, that it doesn’t matter. But young children are working hard to figure out the difference between fantasy and reality, and research shows that when they can’t make sense of what they’re seeing, it can cause a tremendous amount of anxiety.” Be cautious about 3-D movies, too. Because they’re even more realistic, they could be overwhelming to young children.
Even shows that are fine for older children, such as Arthur, may confuse and upset younger children. If a character is mean or angry, young children who can’t understand the plot might worry about what’s happening. And witnessing violence on television has been linked to aggressive and antisocial behavior in young children.
DO look for slow-paced games and TV shows.
Slow-moving, low-action games are best for small children, says Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, Director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. The pacing in video and computer games as well as many TV shows for kids can be extremely fast, unlike anything in the natural world—which is part of their attraction. But a steady diet of this fast pace can have a negative impact. “The more fast-paced the programming [in these games] that children are exposed to in the first three years of life, the more likely they will have attention problems at school age,” Christakis says. “That overstimulation tells the brain to expect high levels of input. And by comparison, reality is boring.”
When it comes to TV shows, turn on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood instead of Power Rangers. Club Penguin—the online game that allows kids to create their own igloo, decorate it, take care of pets and socialize with other penguins—is a slow-paced game with cheerful music. (However, some parents say it promotes consumerism. If this is a concern for you, then it might not be for your child.)