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Life in the AiP Era: Finding the Education in Educational Apps for Children

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Look around. Our kids are spending a lot of time in front of screens. A Kaiser Foundation report from 2010 http://www.kff.org/entmedia/, in the ancient historic period before the iPad (we will refer to these eras as BiP and AiP), reported that children under 3 were in front of computers, phones and televisions for an average of 4 hours per day. Children in the over 8 crowd used visual or digital media for an average of 8 hours per day -- and that did not even include time spent texting! That means that by the time they are in elementary school, our children are sitting in front of screens for 57 hours a week -- that adds up to more hours than a full-time job.

By January 2012 there were over 200,000 "educational" apps for iPads and smartphones. These are low-hanging fruit (think of them as digital candy) for parents who want their children to lay low at fancy restaurants, stay occupied as they travel on subways or road trips and for those who want their budding Einsteins to reach intellectual summits by practicing numbers, letters or story-telling. Amidst this large-scale natural experiment, it comes as no surprise that reporters from ABC News and The Wall Street Journal recently asked us whether apps are good for children.

It is hard to believe that smartphones are just 5 years old and that iPads were only introduced in April of 2010. In developmental terms, they are still in diapers. And with roughly 100 apps or more coming out each day, it is little wonder that the parents are confused and research cannot keep pace with this explosion. We just don't know what happens to children when they build blocks on screen rather than on the playroom floor or when they read books without pages.

But we do have suggestive evidence that can guide parents in this virtual wilderness. The evidence spotlights two questions: How much digital candy should be a part of the regular diet and how can we find high quality educational apps?

The first question is easier to answer. The kids who are spending more than 57 hours a week looking at screens are on their derrières but lots of research points to the power of physical play. Physical activity is not only good for the muscles, but for the brain! Recess makes kids more alert and "smarter" in school. Research also shows that sitting -- a hallmark of the AiP era -- is not good for kids' health. Obesity, diabetes and essential hypertension are running rampant. Limiting children's screen time is really important.

Apps are being directed to kids under 3 while the research shows that young children learn better from us than they do from an avatar. For those under 3, even educational television is not educational. A number of studies conducted by Dan Anderson at the University of Massachusetts show that young children get virtually nothing from videos like Baby Einstein. Research from Professor Patricia Kuhl's lab at the University of Washington and from our own labs points to the importance of conversation with flesh-and-blood, in-your-face humans for engaging children and supporting real learning.

And imagine what our children are missing in the real world when they are glued to the digital world. The fire truck that just passed had two women on it and the waiter is telling mom and dad about life in Russia -- but little Cindy, eyes aglow and fingers on fire, might as well be sleeping for all she picks up from these interesting events.

Now for the tougher question: How do we know which apps are really educational and which are not? When we were kids, our parents had the same questions about the proliferation of television shows. Cable TV expanded the viewing choices beyond Rocky and Bullwinkle and there was an outcry because parents could no longer protect young eyes and ears. It took scientists years to converge on the finding that the problems with TV were not in the medium, but in the message. Good content was great for kids. Bad content was not.

A similar problem haunts the app market. A four-star app rating might tell you whether children liked the app, but it says little about its educational value. So, how can we help parents weed though the ever-expanding garden of apps to find high quality products? Lisa Guernsey's book Screen Time tells us about some websites that review apps, but with 100 a day coming out, parents can't wait for the evaluation. Here we offer a set of 9 principles to help parents choose good educational apps for their children:

1. Is this app designed for your child's age group?
2. Does the app require an adult interpreter to figure out what is going on? If it does, it is not age appropriate.
3. Does the app use flashy graphics and sounds sparingly to support learning rather than as an end in itself?
4. Does the app invite your child to do something else that is positive beyond what it offers, like drawing or jumping or playing geo-hide and seek?
5. Does the app invite children to extend their learning to new situations in the real world, like finding a rectangle in the room they're sitting in?
6. Does the app invite social interaction with a friend to get children talking?
7. Does the app encourage children to think of many ways to solve a problem or does it make children find just one right answer?
8. Does the app offer variety, like showing triangles that don't only have their points at the top?
9. Does the app spark creative thinking by asking children to think of new ways -- not offered by the app -- to put things together?

So, in the AiP era, are educational apps good for children? In the time that it took to write this piece, 200 more apps became available. We know these apps are riveting. So is candy. The evidence suggests that for a healthy diet of talking with parents, playing with friends and just plain running around, parents need to limit the amount of digital candy their children ingest. And when we limit that diet, we might also want to make sure that the apps they use have the very best ingredients. By using the principles above, we can be more vigilant as parents and ensure that there really is some education in those educational apps.