Parents and Policy Makers Continue to Seek Guidance on Children and Media

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been traveling to conferences to share my research on children’s learning from STEM media. In early May, I represented Northwestern at the Coalition for National Science Funding in Washington, D.C., where I met with members of Congress and their staff. Later in May, I travelled to Prague for the International Communication Association Conference and then to Amsterdam for the Jean Piaget Society Conference to present my research on how parent-child interactions affect children’s learning from a coding app.

At these conferences, I kept being asked the same questions from researchers, parents, teachers, and policy makers. In addition to being asked about the specific findings of my research, I was also being asked questions about appropriate uses of media. Researchers who had children would describe to me their child’s habits around media and ask, “Is that okay?” Or they’d ask, “Which apps should my child use?” Even the customs agent at the airport expressed anxiety around his children’s use of media. When I mentioned I was travelling to present research on children and media, he replied: “Ah yes—we need that type of research. Even I’m like, ‘What to do! What to do!’”

The research I presented overwhelmingly shows that children can learn STEM concepts from media, and that parents can help their children learn from touchscreens. Still, it seemed as if my audience couldn’t yet consider the nuanced implications of the findings because they were too concerned and anxious about their practices at home around screen time. I often felt like I was giving them therapy, trying to help well-meaning parents feel less guilty about letting their children use media.

Here I share my response to these questions for parents and educators who still feel unsure or uneasy about using media in the home.

What apps should my child use?

Although I do research on children’s learning from touchscreen apps, I always remind parents that I don’t evaluate all the apps that are available for preschool-aged children. Instead, we select apps to use in our research that we know are created by companies that have research teams to ensure the content is high quality. For preschoolers, I always encourage parents to do the same, and to look for apps made by PBS Kids, Sesame Street, and Parents can also consult Common Sense Media for free for curated lists on apps that experts have deemed are educational for each age.

I also encourage parents to play the game first before letting their kids play; they should then play it with their child as well. Playing with their child can help them see if their child is having any difficulties, or if it seems like their child is “zoning out” and not learning. If parents notice any of these issues with the game, they can pick a different game that is more developmentally appropriate.

This is what we do – is that okay?

When answering questions about media habits, I always remind parents about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on children’s screen time: Children aged 2 years and younger should be using media limitedly and with a parent, while children aged 2 and older should be limited to an hour or less a day. Of course, I often hear parents “confessing” that they let their 1.5 year old play with the tablet while they’re trying to get chores done, or that they feel bad about letting their child use a tablet at a restaurant. Here, I try to remind parents that they need breaks to be effective parents. If that means the iPad is a babysitter for 30 minutes, then so be it.

Once I feel like I’ve reduced parent guilt, I try to empower parents by giving them resources on where to find high-quality content, so that when they’re letting their child use media, they’re more likely to be learning from it. In this way, I try to convey that if the content is high quality, they shouldn’t feel guilty about letting their child play for limited amounts of time.

I also remind parents that media habits aren’t once-size-fits-all. What works for one child might be over-stimulating for another. When making changes or trying out new routines, I encourage parents to consider their child’s development holistically: Media use can be a powerful learning tool, but too much can replace hands-on learning experiences that are also important for development.

My goal is to help parents feel empowered around media. To do this, researchers and educators can provide parents with resources that help them better understand how to best use media with their young children. When we reduce parental guilt and empower parents to feel good about the media choices they make for their kids, we can move past the screen time discussion and talk more about the more nuanced ways that media can promote children’s learning, health, and happiness.