Ask I-LABS Outreach: What’s the Big Deal About Screen Media?

I-LABSOutreach, Research

young students

How do we make good choices about our children’s use of screen media? The I-LABS Outreach team gives an update on the science and practical strategies for parents.

young students

Oh, screen media. A favorite TV show, app, video game, or other digital entertainment can hold—and sometimes consume—a child’s attention. It’s a convenient tool for parents who need an uninterrupted moment to take a shower, get dinner started, or just have a moment’s peace. Or, faced with a long plane flight or car ride, digital media can be a saving grace.

But more and more research is telling us that not all screen media is created equal. And not all uses of screen media produce the same outcomes.

In the latest edition of Ask I-LABS Outreach, we’ll explore another common question parents ask us: How cautious should we be about use of digital devices? How do we use screen media in a healthy way?

It can be hard to find a balanced use of media in a world in which screens are everywhere. I’ve studied how toddlers learn from digital media and given presentations to caregivers and educators about best practices in children’s “media diet.” And I was among experts to speak at the 2015 American Academy of Pediatrics event, “Growing Up Digital: Media Research Symposium,” which examined research related to media and child development.

What I typically see is that parents feel overwhelmed by the number of programming options. They want to provide their children with good media choices, but they lack clear guidelines about specific titles.

What does the science say? Here some research-based guidance I often share with parents who have screen media questions.

How Should We Think About Screen Media?

More and more, research is emphasizing that screen media is just another form of media, like books or magazines or coloring books. Discussions have shifted from “screen time” to “screen media,” reflecting how it’s less about time and more about content.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently called screen time an “antiquated” term and that “screen time” is simply “time.”

So, we should make decisions regarding screen media for children in the same way that we make decisions for children with other types of media. Think of screen media as simply another format for entertainment and educational activities. Just as we regularly sit down to read books with our kids, we should sit down to watch videos with them too—see it as another opportunity to spend time together.

And just as we’re careful about what kinds of stories children read—curating them for their age-appropriateness, for example—we must be selective about the kinds of screen media our children use. I’ll give some best practices on that below.

Children Learn Best Through Live Interactions

Back-and-forth social interactions drive learning for young children. In fact, in an I-LABS study, researchers found that 9-month-old infants learned language sounds through a series of sessions with a live tutor, who read and played with them while speaking in Mandarin—a language that the children had not heard before.

But other infants in the study who received tutoring from a video or audio recordings of the same tutor showed no learning. This means that live interactions are the best way for young children to learn.

Although many types of screen media don’t naturally have the back-and-forth social interactions that science shows are necessary for learning, parents can add in social interactions by interacting with their children during viewing. This is called joint media engagement.

Learning Through Video Chats

One form of screen media that does incorporate live social interactions is video chatting. Video chatting allows children to interact with the person on the other side of the screen, almost as if they were in the same room together.

In a study with toddlers, I found that 24-30-month-olds can learn new words through live social interactions on video chat programs, such as Skype. The children learned from video chats just as well as they learned from someone who was in the same room with them. This means that social interactions play a big role in children’s ability to learn from screens.

Making Screen Media Social

What are the best ways to have a social interaction around screens? Here are some ideas:

– When you watch TV with a child, talk about what they’re watching. Ask questions about how the material relates to their own lives. This is helps children think about what they’re seeing and practice putting their thoughts into words.

– You might also explain new words to your child, or help your child process tricky or complex content (ex:” Why did the sister get mad when her brother took her favorite toy?”). You’re not only explaining what is happening, but you’re also helping children think about feelings and relationships.

– Finally, if you’re watching something with songs, get up and sing or dance along!

Be Choosey About Content and Timing

Of all the programs available to children, be deliberate about what you watch. Media developed for children and that children watch intentionally (“foreground media”) offer the most potential for children to learn. Here are some websites for quality media created for children:

Also be thoughtful about when you use media. For instance, avoid TV as part of the bedtime routine. It delays the onset of children’s sleep and reduces the quality of sleep. Be aware of having TV on as background noise. Having the news or other programs created for adults on in the background can be disruptive to children’s play. It reduces conversations between parents and children—so there are fewer back-and-forth conversations that are so beneficial for children’s learning.

More Resources

In a presentation “Tots and TVs,” I’ll talk more about how children learn from screen media at the 2016 SXSWedu conference, March 7-10 in Austin, TX. You can follow updates from the conference on Twitter: #sxswedu and #totstvs

Also watch for new recommendations on digital media use from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Some day we may look back at the prevailing concern about “screen media” and see it as simply another step in how as a society we integrate technology into our daily lives. For now, we emphasize that children need social interactions to foster healthy learning and development. And the best way to get those interactions is from other people.


About the Author:

Sarah Roseberry Lytle, Ph.D.
Lytle is the Director of Outreach and Education at I-LABS. She has B.A. in psychology and Spanish from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Temple University, where she studied how young children learn language from screen media.

About “Ask I-LABS Outreach:” This is an occasional series based on discussions the I-LABS Outreach team has with parents, caregivers, educators, and others interested in the science of early learning and how it applies to everyday interactions with children. See previous post:
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