More than half of parents feel their children have learned a lot from educational television, apps and games, according to a new national survey of 1,577 parents of kids ages two through ten that is the first to quantify the amount of children's screen time that is educational. But the time spent with this beneficial content drops sharply as children get older, even as the minutes they spend with TV, tablets, smartphones and gaming systems increases. You don't need a math degree to know that's a bad ratio. (The study defined educational content as material that is good for a child's learning or growth, or teaches an academic or social skill.) "There's a need for parents to be more mindful when choosing educational media," says Vicky Rideout, who directed the study for the Joan Ganz Cooney center at Sesame Workshop in New York City. So what can you do?
Turn to TV. For every subject except math, parents were more likely to report that their child learned the most from TV than from platforms like console games, tablets or other mobile devices. This could be in part due to the fact that TV is still the primary way kids spend their screen time. But it may also be because parents have difficulty finding apps that are truly educational, or because kids gravitate to games they perceive as more fun (those Angry birds are stiff competition for Duck Duck Moose and its top-rated learning apps). Of course you have to choose your TV wisely: In the survey, 96 percent of parents rated Sesame Street as very or somewhat educational. SpongeBob SquarePants washed up at 9 percent.
Beware age 5. It's the time when kids' tend to turn away from educational media as they spend more time with mobile devices. Among two to four year olds, the study found 79 percent of media used is educational, whereas among five to seven year olds the proportion declines to 39 percent. The researchers describe the drop as "alarming" and due in part to more use of mobile devices (vs television) as kids get older. Fewer parents felt that their kids learned from mobile than from television. Which leads me to...
Be a digital dragon There will come a time when your mild-mannered kindergartener suddenly starts caring about what games other kids at school are playing. Many of these will be games that are not only devoid of educational value, but downright violent. You'll have to set your family's rules and expectations and stick to them against all kinds of pleading.
Choose kids' media wisely. Get help at Common Sense Media, which has long rated television and movies and now also rates apps, or subscribe to reports from Children's Technology Review. More parents in the study felt that their child learned reading or math from educational media; good science and arts apps may be harder to come by. At the CSM site you can search the database by subject category and there are some good art apps listed there.
Don't give up on books. While 62 percent of kids in the study had an e-reading gadget, about half of them don't use it for reading. They may like reading on paper better, or this finding may be due to the fact that on tablets, there is stiff competition for your child's attention. So continue to provide books on paper and expose your child to libraries and bookstores even if you also give her a device for digital reading.
Play and explore with your kids. "A fair amount of research shows parents and kids engaging with media together enhances it's benefits," Rideout says. Whether you're discussing Sesame Street's themes with a preschooler or researching robots or iguanas on YouTube or Google with a school-age child, ask questions about what your child is seeing and reading. David Kleeman, SVP of insights programs at PlayCollective, a research group that focuses on kids, families and play, points out that as kids get older, they may learn from sources parents wouldn't necessarily classify as "educational" at first blush. In one previous study, he said last week at a Cooney Center forum focused on the new survey results, half of American boys reported learning valuable lessons about friendship from SpongeBob. As kids get older and the devices they use get smaller and more personal, it's still important to engage them about what they are seeing. Who knows? Maybe ultimately this 100 percent digitally native generation will teach us a thing or two?
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