"Technology itself doesn't create problems," says Dr. Rich. "What matters is what we do with it." Just as you monitor the foods your kids eat, you should introduce quality media when they're ready, help them think about what they see and hear, and make sure they're not sacrificing time for homework, physical activity, family, or friends.
Especially when your kids are young, it's best to play or watch with them and discuss what they see. Sarah Kimmel, of Lehi, Utah, is a fan of "lapware," software designed for babies sitting in your lap. "Giggles Computer Funtime for Babies is simple and fun," she says. "We practice shapes, colors, letters, numbers." Giggles also gets a thumbs-up from educational psychologist Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review, which helps teachers, librarians, and parents find quality technology products for children. "It's something joyful that parents can do with their kids."
Research underscores the importance of one-on-one time for learning. A 2010 study, for example, found that when kids were read to by a parent—as opposed to watching a video in which a person read to them—the part of their brain that involves emotions and problem-solving lit up. "However, if you use technology with your child, he'll learn that it can be a collaborative tool," says Dr. Wartella. "You can nudge him along by stopping a video or a game and asking, 'What do you think will happen next?' or pointing out and labeling objects on the screen."
What makes a computer program, an app, or a TV show educational can be summed up in one word: content. "A well-designed program can improve literacy or math skills and boost school readiness no matter what format it?s delivered on," says Deborah Linebarger, Ph.D., director of the Children's Media Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Software should be tailored to their developmental stage and have a simple story line (no flashbacks or cutaways). It also needs characters with whom kids can connect, as well as lots of repetition, and it should let a child move at her own pace.
Of course, it's also wise to shield young children from scary or violent media and overly commercial products. "Children under 7 can't always differentiate between fantasy and reality," says Liz Perle, editor-in-chief and cofounder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that helps parents better understand technology and its effect on kids. "Little kids learn from what they see and imitate it. So if a character on screen bops someone on the head, you may well see that same behavior in your living room."