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Angry Birds vs. Big Bird: can we make iPads a good thing for kids?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 25, 2013 09:38 AM

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Two years ago, only 8 percent of families who had kids 8 years old or younger had a tablet. Now, 40 percent do.

That's just one of the really interesting statistics in the latest report from Common Sense Media, called "Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America 2013." It's a fascinating report that gives a snapshot of how young children use media. I was most struck by the statistics about mobile devices (tablets and smartphones) and kids under 8:

  • kid with ipad.jpg72 percent of them have used a mobile advice for media, up from 38 percent 2 years ago.
  • 38 percent of kids under 2 use mobile devices for media use (so you aren't the only one who is using videos on your iPhone to amuse your toddler in waiting rooms).
  • While there are lots of cool educational apps out there, kids this age get most of their educational content from TV: 61 percent often or sometimes watch educational TV, while only 38 and 34 percent do educational things on mobile devices or computers, respectively (sorry, Angry Birds is not really educational).
What does this explosion of tablet and smartphone use mean for our children?

Clearly, there are some downsides. We've all heard about the problems with screen time, especially in young children. It's not good for kids to be sedentary. Parents are using it as a babysitter instead of interacting with their children--and we know that when kids watch screens instead of talking with grownups, their language development suffers, as can their social development. Fast-paced cartoons and other fast-paced games and programming can interfere with executive function. Recent studies suggest that overstimulation like this can lead to behavior and learning problems, including ADHD. 

This is a bit scary, especially since mobile media isn't going away. If the numbers went up that much in two years, just imagine what they will be in two more years, let alone five or ten.

The trick, then, will be to find ways to use mobile media that are good for kids. Luckily, there are ways to do just this.

My friend and colleague Dr. Dmitri Christakis does research on child development and what we can to do support it. He gave a great talk on this at the national conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics recently. He pointed out that unlike TV, tablets can be reactive and interactive, and can be tailored to the child. He had a great slide where he he compared a jack-in-the-box to a tablet--and because the tablet can be interactive and tailored to the child's level, it actually won out as a better activity for a child. It's not as good as being read to by a parent, he said, but used properly it has potential.

From Dr. Christakis' research, here are three ways to help mobile media be a good thing for young children:

Do it with them. Make it interactive. Play games with them, comment and congratulate as draw or do other things on it without you. Be part of it. Kids need the back-and-forth, the conversation, the nurturing and guidance.

Choose your content wisely. Look for apps, games, videos and other content that are age-appropriate, not fast-paced, and encourage your child to think and learn. My favorite resource for  finding the best apps is the website of Common Sense Media; they have incredibly helpful reviews and a very user-friendly and clear rating system.

Don't overdo it. Kids, especially young children, need varied activities, like playing outside, making things, playing with hands-on toys or playing pretend (one really good bit of news in the Common Sense Media is that kids under 8 are spending less time in front of screens!). Another study Dr. Christakis did showed better language development in kids who played blocks with their parents as toddlers. Sometimes the simplest stuff, like playing with blocks or just talking to your kids, are what makes the real difference. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that families plan a "media diet": just as you think about the kinds and quantities of food you feed your children, and when and where they eat it, you should think about the kinds and quantities of media your child uses, and when and where they use it. Media can be great, just like vegetables and other healthy foods--but it shouldn't get in the way of exercise, school, family time (including meals!) or sleep.

Maybe Angry Birds is like potato chips: fun to eat occasionally, but not a lot or often or as breakfast. And definitely not in bed.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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