Mobile and interactive media offer a range of education and entertainment options for toddlers and parents, but more research on their impact is needed, according to a review of existing studies.
“Mobile devices, because of their portability and interactive components, are introducing media into all aspects of children’s experience and deserve serious attention and research,” write Dr. Jenny Radesky and her colleagues from Boston Medical Center in the journal Pediatrics.
The new media addressed in the report differs from television, because mobile and interactive media include games, videos and educational apps, they write.
“Recommendations for use by infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children are especially crucial, because effects of screen time are potentially more pronounced in this group,” the researchers write.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which publishes the journal Pediatrics, recommends that television and other entertainment media should be avoided among children younger than age two years.
“A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens,” according to the AAP website.
Some interactive media may be beneficial for young children, the researchers write, pointing to one study which found apps that operate like videophones are as effective as real-life interactions at teaching language to two-year-old children.
Other research suggests some interactive apps may also improve literacy skills, but the accompanying sounds and visual effects may hurt their comprehension, they write.
A balance between the two is needed to encourage learning, they add.
The researchers also caution that while interactive and mobile media may help parents in the short term by distracting children, it may be detrimental in the long term because children need to learn to regulate their behavior.
Giving children mobile and interactive media may also lead to fewer in-person interactions with other kids and displace activities that help build other needed skills.
“On the other hand, videophone apps may enhance interpersonal connections by allowing children to maintain face-to-face interactions with distant family members or during military deployment,” they write.
While more research is needed, the review's authors suggest that doctors talk with parents about interactive media and encourage parents to use the media with their children.
“Parents should be encouraged to try a game or app first, play it with the child, and ask the child about it afterward to see what he or she is learning,” they write. “Clinicians should strongly emphasize the benefits of parents and children using interactive media together.”
More research into when and how children learn from interactive media is needed, the researchers write - along with research into children’s behaviors tied to the media use.
“Until more is known, pediatric providers can offer guidance on preserving quality, connected family interactions, whether through ‘unplugged time’ or a designated family hour, and how to establish healthy childhood media habits from early childhood,” they add.