Passive Screen Time Within Educational Apps

As I sift through educational apps, trying to identify the best options for my students, one question often ask is how much children meaningfully interact with a software. How much are they manipulating content, moving things around, and solving problems? How much time is spent watching passively?

There is a tendency among many developers to make apps that have the look and feel of a television show. Children are asked to choose an answer or respond in some way, then they watch a five or ten second animation. Why not? Children like television. It’s rewarding. Perhaps there’s a place for such rewards in educational software.

But if it looks like candy and taste like candy, well maybe it’s candy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently published recommendations for limiting screen time for children. Their perhaps strongest recommendation is to eliminate “television and other entertainment media” for all children under the age of two. There is significant evidence that such media negatively affect a young child’s brain development. For older children, the AAP recommends at most one or two hours per day of “high-quality content” media.

Researchers have begun to draw distinctions between active screen time (e.g., playing video game) and passive screen time (e.g., watching television). Many experts have discussed the potential benefits of playing video games. And some research has compared television to video games and found that video games are favorable. There isn’t yet much data to support any conclusions. But it seems there’s a growing consensus that being active in front of a screen is less harmful and/or more advantageous than being passive.

If we accept that active screen time is broadly favorable, can we then apply that idea to more specific cases? Can we declare that a more interactive app is a better choice? Is an app that has children watch passively 10 percent of the time better than an app that has them watching passively 20 percent of the time? These are important questions, because there is incentive to include videos and animations in apps. Children like them, and whatever children like can be sold, whether or not it educates well. Take a glance at some of the top grossing educational apps and you’ll find examples.

Faced with a lack of definitive answers, I choose to avoid software that looks and acts too much like television. Whether in front of screens or not, I want my students to demonstrate what they understand and what they can create. Children can learn passively, but passive learning rarely fosters the deepest level of understanding.

Sorry kids. I know you like it, but there’s no place for television in my classroom.

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