WE LIVE IN A SEA OF SCREENS. They’re in our places of work, our homes, and often, our children’s hands. The types of media and programming that can be consumed through a screen is never-ending—most geared at entertaining, and more and more geared at educating. But while media-based learning may be becoming the new normal, smart devices don’t necessarily lead to smarter kids. 

Of course, there are a number of benefits to smart tech. Toward the top of the list is its ability to connect kids with the world around them, says Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, a developmental pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital. “It’s very helpful to use FaceTime so that young children can communicate with relatives around the country or [parents] who are in the military.” Technology can remind children that the world is much bigger than their day-to-day communities.

More traditional ways of absorbing media can be beneficial with the right approach. Rather than simply putting children in front of the television, or these days the iPad, Spinks-Franklin encourages parents to watch programming with them to make it an active learning experience. Parents can discuss the content, or even make the viewing experience a game by making predictions of what will happen next or analyzing the state of mind of each character. Parents can also watch the news with pre-teens and teens and engage in thoughtful discussion about current events.

Still, the cons of screens are many. Studies have found a correlation between increased time in front of screens with a decreased attention span, as well as a higher rate of sleep deprivation. And while learning through media is becoming more common, there are obvious limitations, according to Spinks-Franklin. She points out that the vocabulary of the average television show is at the fifth-grade level, and when it comes to educational programming, the learning is passive, without real feedback. When Dora the Explorer asks how many trees are behind her, and the child watching answers “purple,” Dora doesn’t offer correction. Rather, Dora will say, “Yes, that’s right,” to any answer the child gives.

Still, experts aren’t ruling out screen time. Like most things in life, it’s best in moderation. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children ages two to five should intake one hour of high-quality programming, or media that facilitates mental development, per day. Children six years and older should spend no more than two hours per day in front of screens. And regardless of age, Spinks-Franklin says, all parents should be conscious of what’s on their kids’ screens, choosing content that builds kids up, rather than breaking them down.

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