Children’s use of electronic apps has exploded in the past year. We don’t need a survey to know this, though there are plenty. (The latest, released Tuesday by Ruckus Media, says more than 60 percent of parents have at least five kid-focused apps on their mobile device.)
All we need to do is mingle in a family-friendly venue and we’ll see children and toddlers tapping away. Or, in my case, glance in the direction of my daughters when I’ve offered my phone in exchange for some temporary peace.
It’s an interesting trend for a generation of parents who have been conditioned to protect children from television. And it raises the question of what exactly we mean when we talk about screen time.
If asked, we are quick to answer that, no, our toddler has not seen a scrap of television and our older kids haven’t seen much.
But these days there are many more media options than television, and some parents live in denial about what counts as screen time.
Rachel Barr, director of the Georgetown Early Learning Project, and her team spend countless hours with families to understand how children use, learn from and retain media. Her research comes from a realist’s perspective. It’s a fact, after all, that children today are immersed on what Barr calls the “two-dimensional” world of electronics (as opposed to real-life 3-D).
Still, she knows that parents can live in denial.
“Parents tell me, ‘My child doesn’t watch TV,’ ” Barr said. “ ‘But what about DVDs?’ I ask, and they say, ‘Oh yeah.’
“They don’t count that. They don’t count watching something on the laptop.”
They also don’t count educationally focused products those made by LeapFrog. Or apps. Even those read aloud e-books that I convinced myself were in the “good” category count, too.
All of those electronic diversions add toward total screen time.
Screen time is not necessarily all bad. Through visits to subjects’ homes to witness real-life media use, Barr and her team discovered that babies and toddlers can glean a good amount of information from electronic media and retain it for lengthy periods. (The Early Learning Project is always looking for volunteers. You can sign up here.)
Barr said the key to the child’s ability to “bridge the gap between the 2-D and 3-D world” is parental engagement. Those babies and toddlers have the most success in learning from two-dimensional sources if a parent or trusted adult helps them.
That’s where the screen-time denial can be a problem. Before a parent sits down and helps translate, he or she needs to acknowledge that a young child is watching a screen — any kind of screen — and is probably at least a bit confused by it.
There’s no app for interaction. At least not yet.
How do you define screen time? Do you restrict television but allow other types of electronic media?