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Written by Caroline Meyer

TV was the big issue when it came to digital baby sitting in the past, but the amount of screen time has increased even more over the past decade. Now everyone has access to digital media on the go. Babies and small children have phones, tablets and more continually available to them. While certain technologies are helpful at the right times, others can be detrimental to their mental and physical health. 

One of the activities that have proven to a great way for children to develop language and early literacy is having parents read books “with” them. Now kids watch videos, listen to audio books or play digital games instead of reading. Even the youngest of children aged 6 months and up are exposed to this type of media. This is used for school work, reading, learning or recreation. While digital media can play a supporting role in learning, we also have to realise that the personal touch is needed to improve language and social skills. 

There is no evidence that infants or toddlers can learn language from video and experts recommend that digital media be limited during the first two years of a child’s life. During this period they need a lot more human interaction and language development is improved through interacting with people. Video is nothing much more than movement and colours and context is poorly understood. Vocabulary is learned from surroundings and the important people in their lives. Excessive exposure to digital media can result in poor self-regulation and a lower attention span in children. 

Once children reach the preschool age there are some educational apps which are designed for children of this age which can be of some benefit. You can switch out the paper books for e-books at this point but you should be reading them to your child. Encourage your child to focus by asking questions and letting them give you answers and encourage them to ask you questions too. Talk about the illustrations and how they relate to the story. This is a good way to build cognitive thinking as well as better vocabulary. That being said, not all of these educational apps are actually beneficial.  The better apps are ones that have multimedia that integrate with the story or learning goals. The apps should support some kind of learning and not just be something for the child to zone out with. Too much noise and distractions in the apps will deter learning and break concentration. The apps should contain meaningful content and allow the child some creative exploration. Apps that are pure step by step learning can also be quite boring and lose the child’s attention quite quickly. An app for pre-schoolers should be at that level and have lessons that are short enough to keep the child’s attention for the entire lesson. 

Young children are exposed to massive amounts of screen media on television, gaming consoles, smartphones, computers and tablets. Even when they are not directly viewing media on these devices they are still exposed to background media from adults and older siblings. There are many thousands of programs and apps that target school age children. These are designed to teach numbers, language, music and many. While these apps are touted as the ultimate way to foster brain development, there is very little research that substantiates this.  

The fact is that there is very little evidence that children under 3 benefit from onscreen media at all. They learn using media only when there is interaction and this is much better served simply from reading a storybook and talking to the child about it or letting them play with their toys or explore their surroundings. Background media is distracting and actually takes away from their natural learning opportunities instead of enhancing them.  The evidence also shows that pre-schoolers that are exposed to a lot of screen time have poorer decision making abilities and self-control as well as poorer verbal skills in general. 

While it is okay for kids to enjoy minimal amounts of screen time, most of the apps and programs aimed at small children do nothing to improve their mental or physical capabilities. The best thing for a child is interaction with parents, siblings, caregivers and other children. They learn a lot more from these interactions than from any app currently on the market. If you do allow your little ones to watch television for short periods of time, this should be supervised to see what they are watching. When no one is watching the TV, turn it off to reduce distraction. Where possible, don’t have media in the room where your little one is playing and learning as it can impede the natural learning process.  Until apps come out that are fully interactive and able to offer a similar experience to human interaction, giving your child your time and attention is still the best possible way to help them learn. 

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