THE DETAILS: New devices like e-readers, iPads, and iPhones do provide kids with new ways of consuming information, often in ways that make it more engaging and interactive. Apple's App Store is bulging with programs that reportedly help kids learn the alphabet, develop fine motor skills, and understand basic math, similar to traditional educational video games that have been around for years. Furthermore, an article published recently in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy described one teacher's efforts to improve reading skills in her second grade classroom by using an Amazon's Kindle e-reader. The kids were able to use the device's "Notes" feature as they read to summarize plots and make comments about the characters. While the teacher couldn't provide hard numbers as to whether the e-books improved reading comprehension, her commentary noted that less-enthusiastic readers were more motivated to read a Kindle than a standard paper book.
WHAT IT MEANS: While all this new technology sounds attractive to parents—who doesn't want their child to learn?—there's absolutely no research showing that it is beneficial, says Vic Strasburger, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. "There's no research on educational uses of new technology, and there really needs to be," he says. "But at the same time, I think anything that gets kids interested in reading is good." Dr. Strasburger sits on the panel that writes the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP's) position statements on kids' exposure to media, and he says that the group is aware of the potential conflict between the benefits of educational technology and the organization's fairly strict recommendation that kids get no more than two hours of screen time every day. That covers TV, computer, and "other" electronic screens, and includes older children and teenagers.
"First, parents need to understand where that two-hour figure comes from," Dr. Strasburger says. The organization based the limit on research finding that most of the television and computer activity that takes place over two hours isn't high-quality screen time. Usually, it's cartoons or violent video games. "I guarantee you if you have a 15-year-old son with a computer in his bedroom, he's watching pornography," he says. Furthermore, he adds, the recommendation is based on numerous studies finding that screen time in excess of two hours is strongly correlated with obesity, regardless of how educational the programs or computer games may be.
It can be difficult to limit screen time to two hours a day when kids are constantly surrounded by screens, so here are a few suggestions:
• Pay attention to quality, not quantity. "When we say two hours of screen time, we generally mean two hours of entertainment screen time," Dr. Strasburger says. If you don't see any educational or informational value in what your kids are watching or doing online after two hours, pull the plug. And, he adds, the easiest way to know what they're doing is to keep televisions and computers in family rooms, not bedrooms.
• Don't use TV as a pacifier. Now that TV screens can be installed in cars and any parent can download a movie to a computer or mobile phone for long plane trips, it's easy to use screen entertainment as a way to placate fussy kids. "I'm not a big fan of using TV as a tranquilizer," Dr. Strasburger says. If you find yourself in need of a distraction, download an e-book for them, or use the old standby: crayons and a coloring book.
• Be aware of how and when kids are using technology. Teachers are getting really creative with using technology to reach out to older students, says Dr. Strasburger, and that's a good thing. "I think teachers need to join the twenty-first century and use technology to their advantage," he says. But kindergarten classrooms and day-care centers are another story. "Parents should be worried about screen time in day-care centers, where videos are used as electronic babysitters to pacify children and keep them happy." In fact, one study published in the journal Pediatrics found that kids in home-based child-care programs watched six times as much television as children in day-care centers did. See our stories Computers May be Harming Your Children and Should Your Child have an iPad?, by Rodale.com advisor Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, for more details on matching your children's computer use to their age group.
• Don't fall into the "Baby Einstein" trap. There is absolutely no evidence that infants learn anything from DVDs or other supposedly educational programming, says Dr. Strasburger. Even the makers of the famous Baby Einstein videos found that out after a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission forced the Walt Disney Company, the maker of the videos, to offer refunds to parents, noting that there was no research to support their claims that the videos made babies smarter. The AAP recommends zero screen time for infants.