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MD Mama

Making mobile devices a positive for kids

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Adapted from the MD Mama blog on Boston.com.

Two years ago, only 8 percent of families who had kids age 8 or younger had a tablet. Now, 40 percent do.

That’s just one of the interesting statistics in the latest report from Common Sense Media, called “Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013” which gives a snapshot of how young children use media. I was struck by the statistics about mobile devices (tablets and smartphones) and kids under 8: 72 percent have used a mobile device, up from 38 percent two years ago; 38 percent of kids under 2 use mobile devices.

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What does this explosion of tablet and smartphone use mean for our children?

Clearly, there are some downsides. We’ve all heard about the problems with screen time, especially in young children. It’s not good for kids to be sedentary. Parents are using it as a baby sitter instead of interacting with their children — and we know that when kids watch screens instead of talking with grown-ups, their language development suffers, as can their social development. Fast-paced cartoons and other fast-paced games and programming can interfere with executive function. Recent studies suggest that overstimulation like this can lead to behavior and learning problems, including ADHD.

If the numbers went up that much in two years, imagine what they will be in two more years, let alone five or 10.

The trick, then, will be to find ways to use mobile media that are good for kids. Luckily, those ways exist.

My friend and colleague Dr. Dmitri Christakis does research on child development and what we can to do support it. At the national conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics, he pointed out that unlike TV, tablets can be reactive and interactive, and can be tailored to the child. He compared a jack-in-the-box to a tablet: Because the tablet can be interactive and tailored, it won out as a better activity. It’s not as good as being read to by a parent, he said, but it has potential.

From Christakis’s research, here are ways mobile media can be a good thing:

Do it with them. Make it interactive. Kids need the back-and-forth, the conversation, the nurturing and guidance.

Choose your content wisely. Look for apps, games, videos, and other content that are age-appropriate, not fast-paced, and encourage your child to think and learn. My favorite resource for finding the best apps is Common Sense Media.

Don’t overdo it. Kids need varied activities, such as playing outside, making things, playing with toys, or playing pretend. Another study Christakis did showed better language development in kids who as toddlers played blocks with their parents.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends families plan a “media diet.” Just as you think about the kinds and quantities of food you feed your children, and when and where they eat it, think about the kinds and quantities of media your child uses, and when and where they use it. Media shouldn’t get in the way of exercise, school, family time, or sleep.

Read more of this blog at Boston.com/MDMama.
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