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.)
DO go for educational content.
“For children who are age 2 or older, there are educational shows and DVDs, such as Sesame Street and Blues Clues, that are developed with scientific input and do in fact improve a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development,” says Christakis, who has reviewed studies about the effects of educational programming on infants and preschoolers. The findings, reported in the journal Pediatrics, suggested that children not only learn content, but also make cognitive gains by viewing educational programs. Shows that feature imaginative play such as Mister Rogers tend to make children engage in that kind of play after watching, particularly if an adult is with the child and discusses it afterward. Also look for shows that offer age-appropriate lessons in counting, letters, geography, nature, science or identifying shapes, colors and objects. Examples (some are now in syndication): Bill Nye the Science Guy, Sesame Street, Zoboomafoo and Dora the Explorer.
DON’T expect significant learning to come from gadgets.
When it comes to real learning, “there is no substitute for caregiver interaction,” says Christakis, one of the group of researchers who found that the Baby Einstein videos were ineffective and in fact inhibited learning, prompting Disney to change its claims for the product. No video or game, or particular music that accompanies a game, will make your child brighter, he says. “In fact, it has been shown that children will learn language better from a live person than they would from a video with that exact same person teaching the same thing,” he adds. “There is subtle communication between a live person and a baby, social cues that are given off and received.”
It’s easy to think that apps from which children can memorize the ABCs would give them an educational boost, but there’s no evidence that this is true. “Rote memorization is not really learning in the sense of being able to take a concept and apply it to real life,” says Lerner. “No research shows that kids who can say their ABCs at age 2 do better in the long term. It’s much more useful to take a walk with your child around your neighborhood and say, ‘That’s a blue house’ or ‘That’s a yellow house.’ This learning is more meaningful because it’s in a context, part of your child’s everyday world.”
DO set a time limit for electronic gadgets—and stick to it.
A reasonable limit for children age 3 to 5 for playing with video games or watching TV is one hour a day, says Lerner. “And that limit should be untouchable, unrelated to good or bad behavior.” If you use it as a reward or take it away as a punishment, you’re giving it too much importance, she says. Televisions and computers should not be placed in children’s bedrooms, but rather in open family room areas so parents can keep tabs on what is being viewed and for how long. The Internet offers easy access to inappropriate content for children. And children should not be given access to social media unless it is designed for their age group and they are continually supervised by parents. Although Facebook asks that only children over age 13 participate, there is no way this can be controlled.
And consider how much playing with video games or watching TV takes up time that might be better spent. “Children are only awake 10 to 12 hours a day,” says Lerner. “You want to make sure playing with video games is not substituting for other more enriching experiences. And don’t forget the importance of quiet time, or boredom, when children use their imagination to play with action figures or dolls.”
If you like certain video games and apps as much as your child does, play with them together. “If your child wants to play with your iPad, sit with him or her and play with it together, and talk about what you’re seeing. Learning comes from interaction,” says Christakis.
“Evie says, ‘Play with me, Mommy,’” Ellman reports of her now 3-year-old daughter. And the end of the day, the two often read classic children’s books together that Ellman has downloaded onto the iPad. “She loves it,” says Ellman.
NEXT: ARE CELL PHONES SAFE?
Cell Phone Safety
Your child might enjoy grabbing your cell phone to call Grandma and chat in the back seat during a long car ride—but is it safe? No, say some researchers. Recently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) designated cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” as cell phone use has been associated with an increased risk of developing a malignant kind of brain cancer called glioma.
While using a cell phone held to the ear, radiation penetrates the brain, and since children’s brains are small and developing, this could be dangerous, according to Devra Lee Davis, PhD, MPH, author of Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family (Dutton, 2010). To keep your children and yourself safe, says Davis, cell phones should only be used with an earpiece or a speakerphone function, or for texting. Keep the cell phone away from your body and not near your bed at night, so that the phone is away from your head. When not in use, keep cell phones as far away from your and your family’s bodies as possible. That means don’t keep them near or under your pillows at night or in your pockets during the day. According to Davis, cell phone radiation is one-fourth the strength at a distance of two inches from your body, and 50 times lower at three feet.
Nicole Gregory is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who loves her iPad.
How to make smart choices when introducing your child to the world of electronic devices.