When you become a parent, you suddenly find that there's no shortage of people, organizations, and "experts" who are right there telling you what's good or bad for your child, whether you asked them or not. This is even worse today thanks to social media, which also carries a lot of misinformation. One of the loudest organizations in this shouting match is the AAP. And while their research and recommendations are very helpful and valid, I find that oftentimes, they're a bit over-the-top and they tend to flip-flop on subjects that frankly, they just don't have enough scientific data yet (or ever) to make good decisions about.
One such topic is the subject of "Screen Time." This is a modern parenting buzzword for the amount of time that your child spends in front of a screen (Tablet, Cell Phone, TV, Computer, etc.). If one were to follow the recommendations of the AAP and other experts to the letter, a child shouldn't be exposed to screens until at least 18 months old and for children 2 years and older, limit screen time to an hour a day.
An hour a day? Seriously?
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for setting limits and encouraging good habits early-on, but few adults are going to have less than 8 hours of screen exposure a day in the modern world, and that's assuming you work with a computer at your daily job and watch a couple of hours of television at night. Expecting a child to restrict his or her screen time to just a single hour (equivalent to two episodes of PBS programming) is akin to teaching them screen time is off-limits and "bad for you." In my opinion, it's not setting them up for a lifetime of healthy digital consumption habits.
My main complaint is that not all screen time is bad. In fact, there are lots of great opportunities for screen time to be a great learning experience and it's a great opportunity to teach your child about good and bad behaviors when it comes to the digital world. Setting limitations should be less about quantity and more about the quality of the screen time, provided you do set SOME sort of time limitations to encourage plenty of time for non-screen play and learning.
Here are some great, educational, tablet-friendly ways that I like my daughter to spend her screen time:
- Real Educational Games - There's no shortage of great age-appropriate educational games in the App Stores and many of them are inexpensive. One series we like in particular is the "Endless" Series from Originator. These are perhaps the most complete reading/spelling/phonics and number/math apps I've seen for the toddler+ crowd. They ask your child to recognize letters and sounds (letter recognition, phonics), put them into words (spelling), use the words in a sentence (word context, reading), and encourage building vocabulary by using "bigger" words than most other apps. Plus, the animated monsters and the letter sounds are absolutely adorable. These apps are worth spending money on and are better than any free ones out there.
- Kids Podcasts - Podcasts are a great way to have electronics time without actually staring at a screen and they've come a long way with kids content recently. NPR and Tinkercast have teamed-up to create a fantastic show called Wow In The World that that's geared towards the Kindergarten+ crowd. It chooses a topic from the current world of science and explores it at an age-appropriate level with a heavy dose of goofiness and fun. My daughter will literally sit in the backseat of the car giggling as we drive to school listening to it. Another great show geared towards slightly older kids is Brains On. There are also a bunch of podcasts where the hosts read popular books and fairy tales, including book adaptations of popular Disney movies. I consider this akin to reading because it helps develop imagination (as opposed to movie-watching, which shows you what you should see) and it's great for long car trips.
- Read-Along Digital Books - There are many of apps and services that provide books with accompanied audio so your child can read-along as the narrator reads the book to them. Once your child begins to read, you can disable the audio to encourage them to sound out the words on their own. The Disney Story Central app is a great one. The app is kid-friendly, easy to use, and the books are inexpensive. You can either pay for a subscription or buy batches of "tokens" that you or your child can use to purchase books. Amazon also offers read-along children's books that can be used with a Kindle Fire or the Kindle App for iOS.
- Puzzles - My daughter has loved puzzles ever since she could wrap her hands around one of those chunky wooden ones. Now, she likes to play the Magic Jigsaw Puzzles App, often with her Grandfather who also loves puzzles. This particular app has crappy navigation and a lot of in-app ads and purchases, but the features make it worth the aggravation. You can choose a photo (many free ones), choose the number of pieces you want in your puzzle, and set whether you want them to be rotated or not (for an extra challenge). If you purchase one of the feature packs for about $5, you get a pile of extra photos and the ability to make puzzles out of your own photo library. My daughter loves this feature.
- Familiar Board Games - Sometimes, when we're somewhere where there's a long wait and coloring books aren't available, quick and challenging strategy and board games are appropriate. Plus, they can be played against the computer instead of Mom or Dad if you need some adult conversation time. Most of your childhood favorites are available as apps, from Checkers to Hungry Hungry Hippos, Connect-Four (for when you're tired of Tic-Tac-Toe on the back of a restaurant place-mat), Solitaire, Chess, Scrabble, etc.
- No-Longer Age Appropriate Apps - Once an app is no longer appropriate for your child, remove it from the device. Kids tend to keep playing things over and over out of familiarity, even if they're mind-numbingly unchallenging. You can discourage this by removing old apps and downloading newer more challenging ones.
- Kid's YouTube - I'm going to be honest...I put this on our family tablet figuring it couldn't hurt and maybe she could use it to learn new things. What I discovered was that there are plenty of video bloggers out there who are making content designed to sell toys to kids (and probably getting kickbacks from toy manufacturers in the process). We're talking 20-something women playing with dolls and talking in high squeaky voices. If you thought watching hours of cat videos was a great way to rot your brain, this is a new an innovative way to rot your kid's and he or she will want ALL OF IT for Christmas.
- Wandering About Netflix or Amazon Video Freely - Sadly, the parental controls on most video streaming apps are quite minimal. Netflix, for example, lets you set-up a kids account but only lets you select certain age ranges, not specific content. You can't even create a watch list. Generally, there's nothing "bad," but there's a lot of "rot your brain" content (like physical humor cartoons with no educational message) and I'd prefer my child make better choices of what to watch. Also, they don't use passwords, so there's nothing stopping your kid from using your "adult" account anyway. Even though I trust my daughter to make appropriate choices most of the time, I'm usually aware of what she's watching and will say, "Don't watch such and such. How about this instead?" Oftentimes, I'll switch something to the big TV so I can watch a long and gauge whether it's appropriate or not. There's no substitute for good parenting.