Kyle D. Pruett M.D.

Once Upon a Child

Helping Your Kids Use Screens in an Engaging Educational Way

Preserving your young child’s speech and reading skills through co-engagement

Posted Feb 14, 2018

Two recent images illustrate this problem for me: a) the front-page article of an English language paper I saw while on a recent visit to the Persian Gulf announcing the most popular gift in the country for a child on his or her first birthday was a tablet and b) my 18-month-old granddaughter sitting on the floor, a magazine on her lap, attempting to swipe/scroll rather than turn the page. How quickly the world changes.

Common Sense Media, the respected non-profit, recently released a survey documenting the proliferation of screen use in U.S. homes.  98% of today’s homes have a mobile device (tablet, smartphone, etc.), twice the percentage in 2011. Screen use among children under the age of three was five minutes a day then whereas it’s 48 minutes a day now. Fewer than 1% of children owned a tablet six years ago, and now 42% have their own. Comparatively, screen use among infants and toddlers is not on the rise, as the sale/direct marketing of DVDs and apps to babies claiming (without an evidence base) to bolster IQ, etc. has cooled. Still, 42% of parents say the TV is “always” or “mostly on” in the background, which is something we know erodes parent-child interaction and communication, which in turn can slow language development. The survey’s bottom line is that the growth in mobile use is dramatic and bears watching. Why? Because the vast amount of screen time in any form involves passive watching, not active learning.

Toronto’s highly regarded Hospital for Sick Children released its own findings this past summer from 900 families with 6-24-month-olds who were asked to keep media diaries on their children’s mobile usage. A quarter of these children were active users for at least 28 minutes a day. The ones that used devices the most were at a higher risk for delayed speech. Every half hour increase in use was associated with a 50% higher risk of delayed language. The numbers are chilling for an instrument that many of us rely on to babysit for a few minutes while we “try to get something done.” It is indeed a babysitter, but a babysitter with an agenda to increase mobile usage, rather than promote real dynamic language and communication skills that are social and reciprocal in nature. Human beings who love and talk/listen to you are the only source of the latter.

Since these devices are here to stay, what parents now need to focus on is their potential value when used appropriately. Device-savvy kids simply do better in our educationally and socially device-dependent world. And the key to healthier usage is joint media engagement (JME). The games, apps, and videos that are the most useful do not babysit. Rather, they engage and co-engage child, parent, and peer, not in isolated ways to spend/kill ‘free’ time, but, according to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, as “instruments of social connectedness and sharing of interest.” The organization [“Playing Together.” Nov. 1, 2017] convened designers and app users this past summer and found that playing digital games together is on the rise, especially when the context in which the mobile usage occurs is taken into consideration. They concur that the only real educational value from media usage tends to occur when parents and children share the media experience, with challenges and rewards that appeal to both generations.  Based on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Common Sense Media’s approaches, good apps for children under the age of three should do the following:

  • Link the apps’ use to tangible objects for play, connecting the screen and vice versa with the real world;
  • Foster parent co-engagement. If not, forget it;
  • Include open-ended challenges that support creativity and use of imagination, not just “getting it right”;
  • Minimize instructions to allow for intuitive gameplay;
  • Have flexible design for both solitary and co-play usage.


Naranjo-Bock, C., & Ito, J. (Nov. 1, 2017). Playing together: Using Apps to Augment Relationships Between Adults and Children. Retrieved from

About the Author

Kyle Pruett, M.D., is a Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and Educational Advisory Board member for The Goddard School.

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