Can certain apps available out there can help to facilitate a child’s learning? How can it help in their cognitive development?

There has been much controversy about whether parents should or should not introduce their child to apps on electronic devices. With the number of apps available for children to try on, it is important for parents to understand the pros and cons of playing with these apps.

A father of three boys in their teenage years, Mr Adrian Lau, Senior Psychologist from Mount Elizabeth Hospital tells us what are the important factors to consider when choosing apps for children.

Is My Child Getting Too Much Screen Time

#1 Electronic devices, like television sets, can be a medium to learn about the real world but do not substitute these for real-life experiences in the real world.

Some parents are amused that their toddlers know how to navigate and use an app – touch and slide with their fingers. These are learned through imitating their caregivers. So if the caregivers only teach their children how to use electronic devices, thinking that it will give them a good headstart to all the educational apps out there, then the children will lose out in the long run.

#2 A good app will encourage the child to explore by teasing their curiosity, and provide rewards for doing well.

In the process of all these happening, the app teaches, not merely facts and knowledge, but also important developmental skills like hand-eye coordination, and trains their memory and attention. A good app should also have some customization, i.e, be able to set the difficulty level according to the child’s ability, so that there is some challenge, but not too difficult that the child loses interest and give up.

#3 Parents have to take responsibility and test out the apps first before allowing their children access to them.

There are too many apps available, and the quality and age-appropriateness of mobile apps do not come under much regulation.

#4 Inappropriate contents in apps include violence, sexual, and horror.

In the US, there is the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) which rates the suitability of video games in the various platform and consoles. Hopefully, more mobile apps will eventually get rated so that parents can be more assured.

#5 A healthy amount of screen time for children from 4 – 6 years should be no more than half an hour each session. For primary school children, not more than 1 hour each session (unless it is school-related activity).

Looking at the device will strain their eyes. Parents need to encourage them to look at distant objects to relax their eyes. Also, do not neglect to introduce books to them, because the current school system still uses textbooks and we do not want children to feel that textbooks are boring.

#6 Skills such as learning to crawl, walk and grasp objects are NOT imparted through screen time.

For children under 1 year of age, their developmental milestone is mainly on gross and fine motor skills development, such as learning to crawl and walk, learning to grasp objects with their hands. They also learn to recognise familiar faces and familiar voices and responds when their names are called. Such skills are not imparted through screen time.

#7 Young children may show interest in electronic devices. But this does not mean parents need to start exposing them to such devices.

Children will model after their care-giver. If they see their parents glued to their electronic devices, they will try to imitate. For example, toddlers will put a phone to their ears to imitate their parents, even though the toddlers are not making a phone call.

Children get absorbed by edutainment apps because of the entertainment component. They will probably not say “I like this app because it teaches me a lot”. The apps stimulate the child’s senses (audio and visual) to increase their excitement.

children and the media

Although children show interest in electronic devices, this does not mean parents need to let them use or teach them how to use the devices. Children need to learn from the real world, so parents need to bring them out and show them, what is a tree, an aeroplane, an elephant, etc.

Children below 2 years old need to explore their surroundings, whereas edutainment apps mostly entertain and present the stimuli, with very limited exploration. So it is advisable to not let them use electronic devices yet at such age.

#8 Don’t forget to provide children with toys that will encourage hand-eye coordination and spur their imagination.

Children will not be able to set limits to their screen time, so parents have to guide them. Provide your children with a variety of activities that will be more fun than apps. For example, keeping a pet, time at the playground, play ball games, traditional board games or card games that encourage more social interaction.

By Adrian Lau, Senior Psychologist from Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

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