Screen Time Is Good for Kids — If There’s a Human on the Other End
Video chatting can help kids build social skills and learn about the world
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidelines about how much physical activity, sleep, and screen time young children should have. The announcement added fuel to what’s already an anxiety-inducing question for many parents: How much time should they allow kids to spend in front of a screen each day? But no matter how you navigate decisions about television, movies, and apps in your own home, experts say there’s one type of screen time you shouldn’t worry about.
“I don’t think people should feel bad about doing video chatting,” says Yolanda Reid Chassiakos, MD, who teaches pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was the lead author of a 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report on kids and media. The current AAP guidelines say that for kids under 18 months, parents should avoid digital media, but the guidelines make an explicit exception for video chats.
The reason for the exception is that doctors aren’t worried about screens themselves, but about everything kids aren’t doing while they’re looking at screens. For younger children, Reid Chassiakos explains, physical play in the three-dimensional world is crucial for brain development. So is social interaction. When kids are watching a video or tapping an app, these healthier activities get pushed aside.
Georgetown University developmental psychologist Rachel Barr, PhD, says this displacement, which researchers call “technoference,” isn’t as much of a problem with things like Skype and FaceTime because interaction with others is built in to the experience of video chatting. There’s someone on the other side of the screen — and often on the same side, too — engaging with the child.
That engagement seems to help young children learn from video chats in ways they can’t from other media. For example, in a 2014 study, an experimenter taught made-up verbs (like “meeping,” for turning a dial) to toddlers age 24 to 30 months. Some kids saw the demonstrations in person, others saw them over Skype, and a third group watched videos taken from other kids’…