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Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School. Tristan Gorrindo, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. Read more »
A three-year-old boy sits in a grocery-shopping cart, transfixed as he holds a shiny smart phone and blows into it. His breath causes digital balloons to transform into balloon animals, which then scamper across the screen. He is quietly entertained while his mother picks out a bunch of cherries. Is this play or a distracting toy?
For children ages 2 to 6, imaginative play is their most important work. They replay important life scenarios in order to feel they've mastered a skill, perhaps imagining themselves as a doctor giving shots or a parent doling out treats. Pretend play also gives kids a chance to share, take turns and to put themselves into someone else's shoes -- to learn empathy. Play spurs the imagination and gives kids a way to work out their worries. Digital play -- including computer games, smart phones and other handheld devices; peek-a-boo while skyping with grandparents; watching funny video clips -- is the new kid on the block.
Digital play is different from pretend play with a parent or friend because, for the most part, it isn't self-generated. In other words, technology-based play is limited by the actual design of the game or device. When children play pretend, it involves give and take; only the players can determine how their actions evolve. Technology can't duplcate this, but it is still fun, and most young kids are drawn to it.
In our work with families of young children, parents have two main attitudes towards technology: interest and worry. Many parents like the inventive and fun ways that their children can use technology. While a child watches a podcast without commercials, his parent can make a quick dinner. A little girl watches her parents in a video clip and then acts out their roles. Another parent finds Scooby Doo on YouTube and and is able to share a favorite TV moment from his own childhood. Kids listen to Raffi, hear Yertle the Turtle, and play Koi Pond all on their parents' phones.
At the same time, parents worry because their kids' use of technology far outstrips what is known about its impact. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that children under the age of 2 should not watch TV at all, and that kids over 2, should not watch more than 1-to-2 hours of high quality, age-appropriate programming per day.
While the AAP has started replacing language about "TV" with language about any "screen time," there remains little direct guidance, and even less research, about how parents should use technology with young children and what the impact of this early exposure might be.
So without guidance or data, parents are making it up as they go. And many are anxious. Parents tell us that they wonder if their kids will get too dependent on digital play and not want to socialize or play outdoors. They worry that their children's brains get wired to crave more and more digital stimulation.
Based on our experience and the limited data that are available, we offer the following thoughts:
How do you see the role of digital play in the development of your child? What kind of digital activities have you and your child enjoyed together?