Is blending playtime and screen time good for our kids?
Kids can now scan their Play-Doh creations and play with them in a digital world
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?
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.
- Read more from the American Academy of Pediatrics on screen time
- Many Canadian kids 'aren't moving enough to be tired, and they may also be too tired to move'
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.
"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.
But even with new U.S. guidelines, the discussion on kids and screen time is far from over.
"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.