How to Spot Truly Educational Digital Media for Kids
Tablet and phone use is on the rise among children of all ages, making digital media consumption — screen time — one of the most pressing parenting concerns of this generation. Creators of kids’ apps, games, videos and platforms know that parental “gatekeepers” are hearing messages about the negative impact of screen time on kids, and so are increasingly marketing their content as “educational.” But it’s important to remember that the “educational” sticker is a marketing tool; sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not. Here’s a quick guide to knowing the difference.
In a nutshell, truly educational apps, games, videos and platforms don’t spit information out at kids or instruct them — rather, they involve kids, foster their curiosity, encourage them to ask questions, and get them to engage with the concepts and experience. They also foster learning once the screen session is over, by promoting an in-depth understanding of concepts.
Unfortunately, there’s no cheat sheet for spotting these features before opening the app or hitting play on the show — parents have to be informed partners of their kids’ media consumption, which means a near-constant level of vigilance around what kids are watching and playing online. But there are some principles that can guide your and your kids’ media choices:
Choose age-appropriate content
This is one of the most frequent guidelines given to parents, and while it feels obvious, it’s actually quite confusing for people who aren’t early childhood development experts; most of us couldn’t name the specific hard and soft skills children should be (or are capable of) developing at each age.
But it’s actually the most important principle, because when exposed to content that’s too advanced, kids don’t take away the educational lessons we, adults, think are obvious.
Take a superhero movie, filled with messages of good prevailing over evil, someone fighting for what they believe in, valor, courage, and honor. All good messages, right? And because there are positive messages in superhero stories, parents tend to overlook the violence that sometimes goes along with the battle for good. But here’s the problem: Young children don’t pick up the broader messages and story lines; they only learn from the immediate actions and behaviors they see (and then want to imitate). Because the broader messages are beyond their current ability to comprehend, those good, moral lessons go over their heads; while the lessons they take away from superhero stories are ones of violence and fighting.
Most games, videos and apps come with an age range, but it’s usually based on entertainment value, not developmental and learning goals. Check out Common Sense Media’s great in-depth guide on what content is and is not developmentally appropriate for each age group.
Let kids’ interests guide your choices
While a too-young child can’t pick up on the positive message of a superhero show, if a topic or character doesn’t interest your child (at any age), they won’t pay attention to or pick up on any lessons. So while parents should take the final decision around what media their children consume, it’s important to consider what the child is naturally drawn to.
Seek active (not passive) engagement with the screen
Most parents have experienced the scourge of the zombie-kid, who stares slack-jawed at the screen in a trance. This is precisely the screen time experience that does not qualify as educational. (It’s not even ‘edutainment’ at this point; it’s purely time-pass.) If something purports to be “educational,” but does not encourage the active participation and engagement of the child user, then it lacks practical application — the capstone of the learning experience.
Be a mentor
The only way to make sure the media you choose for kids adheres to these guidelines is by watching and trying it yourself. And once you’ve done that, remember that positive media experiences come from real-life discussion and application of what kids have watched and done. So, any time you can start a conversation or encourage practical application of what kids have seen or done on the screen, you’re enhancing that learning experience.
If you still feel at sea, Common Sense Media offers reviews that are an excellent source of objective expert opinions on the educational nature of specific movies, apps, and games.