Does Screen Time Matter If The Games Are Educational?

by Kelly Mullen-McWilliams

When it comes to kids and screens, it's a brave new world. Pediatricians recommend strict limits, while a dazzling number of apps claim to be teaching tools. But are they? Kids love screen time, and frazzled parents fighting the good fight — to get dinner on the table sometime this century — want to know, does screen time matter if games are educational?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), many games marketed as educational aren't benefiting your child as much as you might like. Research-based apps developed by PBS and Sesame Street Workshop can indeed enhance certain skills, noted the AAP, but parents should be leery of the average Apple Store product, which may have little to offer, despite ambitious claims.

Dr. Jonathan Mugan, author of The Curiosity Cycle, explains to Romper that while he doesn't consider screen time harmful in itself, he is concerned that too many hours with games — educational or otherwise — may leech time from social interaction and physical engagement. He also notes that very young kids may struggle to transfer what they learn from screens to the real world.

"It’s important for kids to get out and manipulate things with their physical bodies, because everything we know ultimately grounds out in physical actions in the world," says Mugan. "So if you start learning about shapes in a game before you’ve actually drawn shapes or manipulated [them] with your hands, you don’t have an actual, complete understanding of what a shape is." In general, the older your child is, the more they'll get out of digital games, which rely heavily on symbols and abstractions.

Most educational games focus on rote learning, which has its limits. Mugan believes in the power of curiosity, and suggests that parents foster it by raising little questions that encourage kids to notice, and care about, the world around them. (Do you think the tree outside your window will change colors in fall? What's different about that evergreen beside it?) As far as Mugan knows, no educational app raises such questions. But books do.

Dr. Marika Lindholm, a sociologist and founder of ESME, a site supporting solo moms, shared this story:

"I have one kid who was a voracious reader before he got into Minecraft. He's like, 'Minecraft's one of the better ones, it's good for your brain.' Well, it was so hard for me to get him back. He's reading again, but it required me to become the kind of mom I don’t want to be."

Lindholm understands educational games are tempting — especially for the solo mom working three jobs and caring for a baby, too. "It's a quandary for society," notes Lindholm, who suggests using screen games only as a reward, and only in moderation, because kids simply don't have cerebral cortexes developed enough to self-regulate. Which means more hard labor for parents already spread thin.

Lindholm has two kids in their early 20s, and three under 15. "I can tell you that parenting my three youngest is three times harder because I have to deal with this every day . . . it's a constant battle." Even after playing games touted as educational, Lindholm watches her kids emerge from the digital landscape with glazed looks on their faces.

Mugan is a bigger fan of strategy-based games, like Minecraft, than Lindholm. For him, their complexity echoes that of chess. When evaluating a game, he recommends that parents ask, "How sophisticated is it? How many different types of decisions do you have to make?"

Personally, I'm a fan of open-ended, creative apps like DrawCast and FrameCast (an online animation studio), which eschew rote learning in favor of providing kids with space to make art and share their stories. Confronted with a blank page, kids have no choice but to slow down and think, if they want to bring their vision to life.

When it comes to relaxing screen rules in favor of educational games, research supports PBS and Sesame Street for children over 3. For most everything else screen and game-related, weary parents are left to their own devices — for now. But when the spaghetti's boiling over and you haven't showered since yesterday, keep in mind that you can't go wrong replacing pretty, shiny things with a more matte look — that is, a paper book.