For toddlers, it’s the quality of the screen time that matters, study reveals

Parents, you can give up the twinge of guilt you feel when you let your toddler watch television or play with your smartphone or tablet, according to a new report from Zero to Three.

It’s true that young children learn most easily from one-to-one interaction with their parents and other caregivers or educators. The American Academy of Pediatrics’s guidelines go so far as to say children younger than 2 shouldn’t spend any time in front of the TV or any kind of screen.

That leaves parents asking questions like whether reading to a child from a device counts as story or screen time and whether their own screen time could be hurting their kids.

But, Claire Lerner, a Zero to Three social worker, and Rachel Barr, director of the Georgetown Early Learning Project write “[t]he reality is that young children now grow up in a world of technology.”

On average, they say, children younger than 2 years old watch nearly an hour of television a day and almost 40 percent have used a smartphone or other mobile device. For children 2 to 4, the average amount of daily TV rises to 90 minutes and 80 percent have used a mobile device.

Their review of existing research shows all of that media time isn’t necessarily turning toddlers’ brains to mush. In fact, they say, much of it “suggests that screen media can become tools for learning if two critical factors are taken into consideration: content and context.”

In their paper, Lerner and Barr tease out some practical advice for parents and caregivers.

First, parents should still limit children’s time with devices. Kids do their best learning from one-on-one time with adults.

When kids are using devices, parents should be active participants. They can talk about what they see on the screen the same way they would with a picture book. Dr. Pamela Hosmer gave the NewsHour examples of strategies for making screen time interactive earlier this year.

Once the screen is turned off, parents should draw connections between the ideas, words and objects seen on a device to the real world. They can do that by playing with and pointing to objects or acting out skits.

The content children are exposed to on television or in an app should be age-appropriate.

Make kids’ screen time deliberate. Studies do show that background TV disturbs children’s play and development.

It’s best to keep adults’ television and device time separate from time with young kids. A Boston Medical Center study found the longer parents used devices during a meal, the more kids acted out.

Finally, it’s probably best to keep sleeping and eating separate from television watching. Kids who watched TV within two hours of their bedtime have a harder time falling asleep and snacking in front of the TV has been tied to childhood obesity.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.