Is blending playtime and screen time good for our kids?

Nostalgic brands like Play-Doh and Pokémon are bringing the experiences of traditional and digital playtime together, raising yet another question for parents trying to manage their children's relationship with technology.

Kids can now scan their Play-Doh creations and play with them in a digital world

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its guidelines around kids and screen time. The new focus? Parents should think about what kids are watching — and watch it with them. (Michael Kooren/Reuters )

Pokémon Go was the viral sensation of the summer, engaging kids and adults alike in the pursuit of rare digital creatures across neighbourhoods and parks.

Now, another nostalgic brand has launched a product to catapult kids into the digital world. With a new app that brings plasticine sculpture to life inside a virtual world, Play-Doh Touch is part of a trend that blends digital play with real world experiences.

The app is hitting the market not long after American Association of Pediatrics released its updated recommendations on screen time for our quickly changing digital world, in part to help parents navigate this new wave of hybrid experiences.

"Children learn best by doing and, traditionally, screen time has been largely passive and inactive," says Paul Darvasi, a media studies expert who uses game-based learning strategies in his teaching at Royal St. George's College in Toronto.

"The big difference now is that screens are mobile and interactive and can in fact promote and enhance physical activity, exploration, and social interactions, all key factors in a child's development."

The question then is, do products like Pokémon Go and the new Play-Doh app encourage kids who would have otherwise been glued to a screen-based experience to engage in physical, creative play? Or, is the physical, creative building aspect of the experience just a stepping stone to the digital, screen-based experience?

The Pokémon Go craze got kids (and many, many adults) outside as they searched the real world for digital creatures that would appear on their smartphones. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Matthew Johnson is the Director of Education for Media Smarts and a member of the Canadian Pediatric Society's Digital Task Force. He says apps like the new Play-Doh product have the potential to make screen time valuable for kids — but he cautions that it's not all upside.

These kinds of experiences work best if they serve as a supplement to physical and creative play, he says. But there's a risk that apps could take time away from those tactile or rough-and-tumble activities instead.

"If for example, when you're using the Play-Doh app you only do the stage of creating your character with real Play-Doh — everything else is done through the screen."

Finding balance in a digital world

To help guide parents — many of whom struggle with their own reliance on digital devices — with making the best decisions about screen time for their kids, the American Academy of Pediatrics new screen time recommendations take into account just how digital our lives have become.

Instead of rigid rules, there's an emphasis on balance and reteaching what kids see on a screen. For older kids, there's an emphasis on learning how to make decisions for themselves about when to engage digitally, and when not to.

After all, digital kids are going to grow up to be digital adults, and they need to learn how to manage their attention, screen time, and online and offline interactions.

Mattel also got in on the interactive app action, with a game that allows kids to use toys and cars to interact with an iPad. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

"Too often, scare tactics are used to shape parents' perspective on how media is harmful to their children and I think a balanced approach is important to uphold," says Erin Reilly, vice-president of the National Association of Media Literacy and the managing director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC.

"As parents, we have to be the role model," she says. 

Her favourite rule of thumb is: "People before technology," with an emphasis on never letting a screen take precedence over the people around you.

She taught this to her own son when he was just a toddler, and he now reminds her of the rule, too, when she gets sucked into a particularly engaging article or video on her smartphone. "We all need to be reminded as to what is important."

Focus on 'using media together'

This intergenerational approach is echoed by Johnson, who strongly encourages co-viewing and co-playing of media between parents and kids. 

  "They're going to be more focused on how children are using media — and, in particular, how families are using media together."

But even with new U.S. guidelines, the discussion on kids and screen time is far from over.

  With more and more hybrid experiences like Pokémon go and the Play-Doh app hitting the market, we are quickly moving into a world where screens will be replaced by augmented reality, and that means the way we think about screen time needs to change as well.

"These have unpredictable effects on a child's emotional and psychological development," says Darvasi, "and there is currently no research or guidelines for their responsible use."

That means, as we race to keep up with changing technologies, we also need to keep thinking ahead.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.