Advice for Parents on Appropriate Media Use in Early Childhood

Ellen Wartella believes media do have learning potential in early childhood.  And she should know. Wartella has been a senior fellow here at the Fred Rogers Center since 2006. She is professor of communication and human development and social policy at Northwestern University and has been studying the impact of media on children for more than 30 years.

Wartella says that when media is well designed to develop the particular needs of a specific age group, the research finds huge potential for learning in the early years.

Speaking in a podcast at Zero To Three last year, Wartella shared some helpful advice for parents and early childhood professionals looking for help in choosing appropriate media to use with young children. She shares some tips on what to watch out for, what to avoid, and how parents and caregivers can participate in media experiences with children.

Wartella acknowledges that adults, especially parents, may have multiple motivations for using screen technology, including that they may need time away from the child to do the dishes or make dinner. She stresses that even in the digital age, the most important thing parents can do to ensure healthy development is to make sure they spend lots of time talking to and interacting with their babies and toddlers, rather than just putting them in front of screens and walking away.

“We’ve known for a long time that the best context for young children to learn in is to have caring adults to talk with and interesting objects to interact with,” she said.

But she says, “There is no reason why not, in fact there is good evidence that, media can also be these interesting objects. To the extent that parents engage in media use with their young children, that is the best context for learning. “

Here’s what parents should look for in selecting media for young children:

  • Is the media content of interest to the child? If your child is interested in animals, for example, choose media that uses language to teach about nature and animals.
  • Is the media age appropriate? Wartella says babies ages 9 to 18 months may be engaged by very simple stories: a video or app that shows an animal walking through a field, for example, or a baby picking up a flower. In general, media with complex narrative should be left for children over age 2. But research shows that like storybooks, media with simple, linear narrative may help very young children with language development. Similarly, apps that show cause and effect in concrete and appealing ways may be better matched to children under age 2.

Parents or educators of very young children should be cautious about some things:

  • When media use cuts down on the time adults talk with and engage young children.
  • Television in the background. Wartella says research shows this can interfere with babies and toddler’s natural play. And children can overhear adult content that may be disturbing. (For more on what scientists are calling “second-hand TV,” read Lisa Guernsey’s recent column at Time Ideas.)

Still need help? Wartella offers these age-appropriate suggestions:

12 months

What to choose: Choose media that helps children develop language—that labels objects in the child’s world, the natural world, animal sounds, trees, etc.

What caregivers can do:  Adults can help shape the child’s attention and reinforce language children hear in the screen media by repeating and extending what they see on the screen to a real-life context. “Remind the child that this is a ball like they saw Elmo play with or that this is a dog much like the dog they saw in the video,” Wartella said.

18 months

What to choose: Choose media that encourages physical interaction with what’s happening on the screen. Active 18-month-olds should be clapping, singing, or running around while they watch a video or use a mobile app.

What caregivers can do: Adults can point out what’s going on in the media and help extend the child’s language and understanding of the social context in which the language is used, both on screen and off.  Parents could ask, for example, “Can you clap your hands the way you see Dora clapping her hands?”

2-3 years

What to choose: Choose media that has an age-appropriate story.

What caregivers can do: Talk with children about what they’ve just watched to make sure they understand the story. Ask children to retell the story at the dinner table, for example. Wartella says it is important to help children connect the motivations of characters they see in media with the consequences of those characters’ actions. These questions can help reinforce the narrative, which becomes an important basis for learning as children grow older.

You can hear the full podcast at Zero To Three. It’s well worth listening to.

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