Many shows and apps targeted at babies and toddlers are marketed as “educational,” but that doesn’t always mean much. The term “educational” isn’t regulated and can be used on any digital media product.
So if you want to introduce a little screen time now, how do you know what to look for? Use these research-backed tips to select the best quality content for your toddler.
1. Find the educational “sweet spot”
Choose content that introduces fresh concepts your toddler is ready for now. An older child may be able to sound out words, but your young toddler likely isn’t. Look for programs that feature ideas and skills your toddler is already trying to figure out, like managing emotions, taking turns, and understanding cause and effect. For example, “Daniel Tiger” explores relationships and emotions, while “Blues Clues & You” models problem solving.
2. Look for content that features real people
Your toddler is still developing the cognitive skills to understand what they see on the screen. Programs that show real people doing realistic things help them connect the images and story to their own life: “Daniel Tiger is at the grocery store. I go to the grocery store, too.” Animation adds an extra layer of symbolism that your toddler can’t process quite yet.
3. Choose interactive content
Research has found that children learn more from digital media when they believe they have a relationship with the main character. Your child is more likely to feel that connection with a character who occasionally talks directly to the audience. Look for shows with a simple storyline and only a few moments of this kind of character-audience connection—too much may feel overwhelming. Even if your toddler doesn’t respond to any questions or prompts, these interactive moments can help them stay engaged.
4. Seek out slower-paced shows with fewer cuts
Each shift in perspective or change in scene is considered a “cut.” Older children can likely follow a more complex storyline with many quick cuts, but research shows that toddlers have trouble keeping track. Loud, fast-moving shows can be especially confusing. For example, they may notice a character was scared without understanding why. A slower pace allows your toddler time to process—with your help—each scene as it unfolds.
5. Ensure that the sound matches the animations or actions
Good toddler content pairs the sound effects with whatever is happening on the screen: If your toddler hears a dog bark, they should be able to see a dog barking at the same time. Sounds that have nothing to do with what’s visible pull your toddler’s focus, so they can’t follow the main idea from beginning to end.
Learn more about the research
Council on Communications and Media, Hill, D., Ameenuddin, N., Reid Chassiakos, Y. L., Cross, C., Hutchinson, J., Levine, A., … & Swanson, W. S. (2016). Media and young minds. Pediatrics, 138(5), e20162591.
Flynn, R. M., Wong, K. M., Neuman, S. B., & Kaefer, T. (2019). Children’s attention to screen-based pedagogical supports: an eye-tracking study with low-income preschool children in the United States. Journal of Children and Media, 13(2), 180-200.
Kirkorian, H. L., Anderson, D. R., & Keen, R. (2012). Age differences in online processing of video: An eye movement study. Child Development, 83(2), 497-507.
Lauricella, A. R., Gola, A. A. H., & Calvert, S. L. (2011). Toddlers’ learning from socially meaningful video characters. Media Psychology, 14(2), 216-232.
Nussenbaum, K., & Amso, D. (2016). An attentional Goldilocks effect: An optimal amount of social interactivity promotes word learning from video. Journal of Cognition and Development, 17(1), 30-40.
Troseth, G. L., Flores, I., & Stuckelman, Z. D. (2019). When representation becomes reality: Interactive digital media and symbolic development. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 56, 65-108.
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