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Screaming at Screens?

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I Screen, You Screen, We All Screen For…?

Dr. Kathryn Birkenbach is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University, and Manager of Research at Early Medical in New York.

Kathryn has things to tell us about kids’ neurological development, and screen time spent with electronic devices including phones, tablets, computers, and TVs.

From the 1960s criticism of “the gogglebox” to the modern-day critiques of “iPad babies” as a watchword of parental neglect, there’s plenty people can say against screen time, but Dr. Birkenbach tells us the that the reality is more nuanced:

Context Is Key

On a positive note”: consistent exposure to age-appropriate educational material results in quicker language acquisition than media that’s purely for entertainment purposes, or not age-appropriate.

Contrary to popular belief, children do not in fact learn by osmosis!

Interaction Is Far More Valuable Than Inaction

Kathryn advises that while adults tend to quite easily grasp things from instructional videos, the same does not go for small children.

This means that a lot of educational programming can be beneficial to small children if and only if there is an adult with them to help translate the visual into the practical!

There’s a story that does the rounds on the Internet: a young boy wanted to train his puppy, but didn’t know how. He asked, and was told “search for puppy training on YouTube”. His parents came back later and found him with his iPad, earnestly showing the training videos to the puppy.

We can laugh at the child’s naïvety, knowing that’s not how it works and the puppy will not learn that way, so why make the same mistake in turn?

❝The phenomenon known as the “video deficit effect” can be overcome, when an on-screen guide interacts with the child or a parent is physically present and draws the child’s attention to relevant information.

In other words, interaction with others appears to enhance the perceived salience of on-screen information, unlocking a child’s ability to learn from a medium which would otherwise offer no real-world benefit.

Screens Can Supplement, But Can’t Replace, Live Learning & Play

Sci-fi may show us “education pods” in which children learn all they need to from their screen… but according to our most up-to-date science, Dr. Birkenbach says, that simply would not work at all.

Screen time without adult interactions will typically fail to provide small children any benefit.

There is one thing it’s good at, though… attracting and keeping attention.

Thus, even a mere background presence of a TV show in the room will tend to actively reduce the time a small child spends on other activities, including live learning and exploratory play.

The attention-grabbing abilities of TV shows don’t stop at children, though! Adult caregivers will also tend to engage in fewer interactions with their children… and the interactions will be shorter and of lower quality.

In Summary:

  • Young children will tend not to learn from non-interactive screen time
  • Interactive screen time, ideally with a caregiver, can be educational
  • Interactive screen time, not with a carer, can be beneficial (but a weak substitute)
    • Interactive screen time refers to shows such as Dora The Explorer, where Dora directly addresses the viewer and asks questions…But it’s reliant on the child caring to answer!
    • It can also mean interactive educational apps, provided the child does consciously interact!
    • Randomly pressing things is not conscious interaction! The key here is engaging with it intelligently and thoughtfully
  • A screen will take a child’s time and attention away from non-screen things: that’s a genuine measurable loss to their development!

Absolute Bottom Line:

Screens can be of benefit to small children, if and only if the material is:

  • Age-Appropriate
  • Educational
  • Interactive

If it’s missing one of those three, it’ll be of little to no benefit, and can even harm, as it reduces the time spent on more beneficial activities.

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