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What Is This App Doing To My Kid's Brain?

Seven out of 10 kids in tablet-using homes use the tablet themselves. The author of a new book argues parents are paying attention to the wrong criteria to decide what’s good and bad in kids’ media.

The amount of digital media exposure we’re getting, even among the tiniest infants, just keeps growing. Half of all children under the age of 8 have access to a touch-screen device, whether smartphone or tablet, at home, and half of infants under 1 year watch TV or videos—an average of almost two hours a day. The educational app field is seeing massive growth with 80% of educational apps in the iPad store targeted to young children. But research, says one expert, is lagging far behind practice.

"Parents tend to think: 'If my kids are interacting with media, that they’re getting something out of it,' versus 'If they’re just watching they’re not,'" says Lisa Guernsey. "It’s a dangerous dichotomy—it’s not always true. Some passive screen media may be designed much better than some interactive media."

Guernsey’s book Screen Time has just been newly revised and updated, summarizing the latest peer-reviewed research on kids and digital media. There’s still frustratingly little research that has been published on kids and games or apps, but one Georgetown study was promising. It found that 3-year-olds who played a simple hide-and-seek game with puppets by pressing a space bar were able to apply that knowledge to the real world (looking for the dog puppet behind a clothesline in a real-life setting similar to the game), while those who merely watched the puppets on video were less engaged and less able to apply what they saw.

What’s unknown, but fascinating, is how media and especially touch screens, might shape—or warp—children’s attention span, language development, and dawning understanding of concepts like object permanence and "pictorial competence." That phrase refers to the fact that between 9 and 15 months of age, babies are apt to grab at or even try to taste a picture of a bottle in a book, not quite understanding the difference between a 3-D object and a 2-D representation. But what happens when that 2-D bottle is on a touch screen and can be moved around, tipped over, and "spill" with sound effects?
"We’re primed now for some research that digs into how very young minds are understanding what they’re touching on a screen and how it relates to real life," Guernsey says.

This infographic, from, gives a sense of some of the numbers on children and digital media: