One of the most popular phrases in the discourse surrounding screen time and young children, whether from mainstream media or from research-based recommendations, is “good quality” screens. You will often read that screen time is not such a bad thing, as long as your child’s time spent on it is limited and the media they consume is of “good quality.” But what exactly makes some types of screen time more “good quality” than others?
What is “good quality” screen time?
The general consensus seems to be that “good quality” screen time is whatever has the ability to contribute in a positive way to your child’s cognitive and physical development. Ideally, good quality screen time would not hinder or prevent your child from interacting from others and learning important skills, but instead would be a creative and fun way for your child to do both of these things.
An article posted by Child Mind Institute, which is a nonprofit organization that provides research-based information on a variety of topics to children and families, compiled a list of tips for choosing media that can play a beneficial role in your child’s development. It’s important, they note, to realize right off the bat that “not all screen time is created equal,” and that certain qualities can make a child’s screen time contribute more to their early development. These qualities include interactivity, child-directedness, active elements, and sociality.
This article claims that where screen time is concerned, the “most important form of interactivity is what happens with parents as they participate in toddler screen time.” What brings up the quality of a certain form of screen time is when it involves direct interaction with the parents.
The article also introduces the term “joint media engagement” as the gold standard of interactive screen time—this is when you interact with your child centered around a screen in the exact same way as you would with a book, or a painting, for example.
In these cases, the screen is a background activity and what takes centre stage is the interaction between you and your child, and is only supplemented by whatever media you have chosen.
An important factor in making the most of your child’s screen time is the element of child-directedness. This means that the more media encourages your child to take the lead and make creative and challenging decisions, the better it will be for your child’s cognitive development.
The article suggests that an open-ended, responsive, choose your own adventure-style form of screen time is more likely to have educational benefits than one that doesn’t require much control on the child’s end. Basically, the play should be child-led, rather than app-led—in line with the classic saying that “any toy that your child is playing with should be 10% toy, and 90% child.”
Active vs. Passive Screen Time
One of the main elements of good quality screen time, as emphasized by the article, is the favouring of “active screen time” over “passive screen time.” To illustrate, active screen time would include media where your child is actively engaging, whether they are moving along physically with the app, or completing cognitively challenging tests. Passive screen time, however, would include watching any regular TV show, where your child sits back and absorbs information. When it comes to “good quality” screen time, active is the way to go.
According to an Australian study on active and passive screen uses, there are actually two types of active screen use: physical and cognitive. As mentioned before, children can get physical benefits when they move around in response to media, such as following a video game’s dance routine. Children can also get cognitive benefits when they answer skill-testing questions on an online quiz, or use problem-solving skills to advance in a game.
This article also recommends multi-sensory experiences:
“There should be multiple inputs of stimulation—they’re looking, they’re listening and then they’re swiping. Or they’re taking a picture of something that’s real and they’re doing something with it.”
The more ways in which your child can interact with the media, the more beneficial it will be to different aspects of their development.
You might find yourself doubting whether screen time can provide any social benefits for your young child—with them being too young to participate in social media or other forms of interacting with peers. However, screen time can potentially be a link between your child and their uncles, aunts, grandparents, or any of their loved ones who they aren’t able to see—especially in our current pandemic situation! As mentioned by a researcher in the article, “one of the great uses of iPads or iPhones is communicating relatives who do not live nearby […] this is a great use of technology.”
Again enforcing the interactivity component of good quality screen time, it is definitely possible for a good old FaceTime to spark feelings of connectivity in your child.
Plain Old Screen Time
Finally, the article emphasizes the fact that it is not the end of the world if your child engages in screen time simply for entertainment, as a treat, or to unwind—as long as this form of screen time is accompanied with healthy limits and boundaries. The thing to remember here is that letting your child engage in a limited amount of passive screen time doesn’t make you a bad parent, in the same way that completely restricting screen time isn’t the only ingredient for good parenting!
Keeping in mind that while even the best quality screen time cannot completely replace real-life activities and human interaction, striking a healthy balance of what’s best for your child, your relationship with your child, and your personal schedule, is of ultimate importance.
When screen time is involved in your child’s day, using these guidelines can help you to choose the best possible option for your child.