The analysis of results from previous studies found that normally-developing kids who use interactive educational apps may be better at recognizing and writing numbers and letters. But this didn’t appear to hold true for passive screen time, and it also doesn’t suggest kids should have unlimited access to smartphones and tablets, the study team notes in Pediatrics.
“There is somewhat consistent evidence across studies that game-based educational apps targeting early academic skills, like early math skills, have the potential to support learning in young children,” said study leader Shayl Griffith of Florida International University in Miami.
“These findings are important because they suggest that interactive apps, when chosen well and used appropriately, may be a useful and accessible tool to support early academic development,” Griffith said by email.
Doctors urge parents of young kids to limit screen time or avoid it altogether because all those hours watching videos or gaming have been linked to slowed development of speech and language, motor skills and social and behavioral skills.
Screen time can get in the way of creative play and interactions with caregivers that are essential for child development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Under 2 years of age, children shouldn’t have any screen time at all, whether it’s television or digital games and toys, the AAP recommends. From ages 2 to 5, kids should get no more than an hour a day of total screen time, and they should be with parents or caregivers during these activities, the AAP advises.
“Parents should absolutely continue to try to limit screen time, as recommended by the AAP,” Griffith said. “However, when children do use screens, parents should also pay attention what kinds of activities they are engaging in, so as to maximize potential benefits.”
For the study, researchers examined results from 35 earlier studies, with a total of 4,639 participants, that looked at a wide variety of developmental outcomes associated with interactive apps.
They didn’t find any evidence that interactive apps could improve social or communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorder, a benefit claimed by many apps.
Researchers did, however, find some evidence that interactive apps helped with math and reading skills, particularly with early building blocks like counting and sounding out simple words.
Overall, because the various studies had many different methods and objectives, Griffith’s team couldn’t draw broad conclusions about what type of app might be best for building specific academic skills.
The take-home message, Dr. Michael Rich of Boston Children’s Hospital said by email, is that: “1) educational apps are frequently less effective than they claim to be, especially when used solo by the child rather than while interacting with a parent or teacher, 2) parents should treat screens as powerful tools that should be used by children when they need that tool and can manage it in healthy, safe ways, 3) there is no way to keep screens from kids under 2, but they should be used in ways that they can handle, like interactive video calls with grandparents or other relatives, 4) screens need to be used wisely by kids of all ages, with constant awareness of what time in front of a screen is displacing, in terms of creativity, social interaction, or more traditional student and adult-driven learning.”
“Parents should be thoughtful about the types and content of media that they give children access to, and preview those media,” Griffith suggests.