Engaging Kids Through Screen Time

By Jessica Rose-Malm, Senior Health Policy Manager

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A new report from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics shows screen time for infants has doubled in a seven-year period — and points to changing patterns of interaction between parents and children. But with nearly 15 million children in out-of-home care every day, parents aren’t the only gatekeepers between babies and tech. Child care providers have a role in helping children learn how to interact with technology in a way that helps children grow, and we have to think about ways we can support them. These adults also need ideas on how to best use screen time with kids so it helps them grow up healthy, and helps low-income children learn the technical skills they need to be successful.

Kids need structured access to technology, with support from adults, because tech can teach them important skills or about things that they can’t see in their every day life. Online videos can help a preschool teacher teach kids a new dance, with the support of the online instructor. But not all online content is equal, and putting kids in front of a screen without an adult to explain what’s happening doesn’t work as well as we think it does.

Screen time that is structured, strategic and supported with positive adult interaction can teach kids important concepts and skills that they might not learn otherwise. Research shows that developmentally appropriate educational programming, like PBS Kids, can boost literacy, social skills and problem-solving in preschoolers. And screen time that is supervised, educational and built into lessons can actually get kids moving more and sitting less. While screens can’t take the place of playmates and responsive, caring adults, technology can be a great jumping off point for caregivers to help kids practice new skills in the real world.

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In the hands of a great teacher, television and other media can introduce kids to a new universe of ideas. For children from families with low income or low parental education, child care can be a great space for educational interactions using technology when parents don’t have the time or technology to do it at home. The digital divide is not just about access to devices; it’s about access to technology as a tool for learning.

To be sure, the evidence is clear. Screens themselves or screen-supported interactions are not as good at teaching children as positive, 1:1 parent and child interactions. But we also know that for some topics, caregivers need the content delivered via technology to effectively teach a particular idea. Plus, technology and screen time aren’t going anywhere. In fact, with voice-activated access to the internet (Hey, Siri, Hi Alexa!), future generations will always be engaging with technology. A better media strategy is to help all caregivers, including child care providers, learn how to use technology as a tool that supports their interactions with children — not as a replacement for the teaching that they do. Regulations and policies limiting screen time aren’t enough. The teachers and family child care providers who work with kids every day need training and resources to help them build technology into the work that they do.

Without a doubt, we need to be thoughtful about screen time. Caregivers turn to screen time for a host of reasons and we need to understand those reasons and the kinds of support caregivers need to use technology as a tool for learning. While it is critical to focus on parents in these conversations, we can’t ignore the needs and opportunities for promoting smart technology use in child care.