February 2022

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Dr. Jenny Radesky on Kids and Smart Devices

Excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Jenny Radesky, an NIH-funded expert on kids and media use.

Read the story Delving Into Devices: Children and Screen Time in NIH News in Health.

NIHNiH: How do kids interact with media on smartphones and tablets differently from how they watch television?

Radesky: The handheld design makes it harder for parents to watch things with their kids. Someone always wants to grab it and control it. In our lab, we’ve seen that when kids play with a tablet, they do a lot less interacting with their parents. They even move their body position in a way that walls off access for parents to watch what’s happening on the device.

There’s also the mobility, where kids can take devices into any moment of boredom or discomfort. That is hard to do with TV.

Mobile devices are also interactive. Little kids can control them with just swiping and touching. And what they’re playing with interacts back. Many websites and apps learn what your favorite shows are, then offer you more of the same. A lot of these interactive features are very rewarding and can make it tough for kids to transition away from devices to go do something else.

There’s also stuff going on behind the scenes, like data collection and profiling of users.

All these things make it harder to parent around new media because it’s everywhere, and it’s much better at grabbing our attention and keeping us engaged.

NIHNiH: What types of questions are researchers hoping to answer about new screen technologies and the developing brain?

Radesky: If you’re always using media that’s feeding you recommendations of the same stuff, are you going to develop the mental flexibility to see things from multiple angles? If media is always providing instant gratification, do kids get enough practice delaying reward and being patient?

If media is constantly used to help quiet kids down when they’re feeling upset, is that getting in the way of learning emotional management skills?

With new media use, you never need to pause and work on these things. So we want to know, are there ways that excessive media use or certain types of content get in the way of developing these life skills?

NIHNiH: What are some recommendations for parents who want to know more about what their kids are doing on their devices?

Radesky: I recommend that parents be very choosy. Don’t let kids download their own apps. So many apps are packed with ads, especially the free apps. And these ads can be manipulative, trying to encourage purchases. Some apps have violent ads in them.

There are also data trackers in some apps played by kids. So, you have to be very intentional about reading up on an app, reading reviews, and trying it out with your child. And then if you don’t like it, just uninstall it.

Use the kids’ version of whatever app your kids are interested in if one is available. That will filter out some creepy or inappropriate content. But you should still watch along, because there may not be anyone checking those videos before they get posted.

Videos that were crafted by people who understand children, like PBS Kids, are still healthy options. Starting around the age of two, kids can start to learn some concepts from those high-quality programs. Maybe you have to go to the PBS Kids app rather than watching it on network TV. But that’s a predictable, familiar source of positive content.

Playing along with games is harder. And kids don’t want you hovering over them. But you can ask them about what they played today, or some of the cool things they’ve watched. That can also help them transition away from screen time.