by Kathy Eugster
We live in a digital world now and it is impossible to ignore the impact that technology has had on the lives of children and families. Children are exposed to technology starting at birth these days.
Over the past 20 years there has been increasing sophistication of digital and media–based “toys” replacing traditional toys. This Blog will summarize some of the important research and recommendations for parents of young children, in order to understand some of the ways they and their children can explore and play with digital technologies.
A word of caution about social media
In this Blog, I do not include social media in the definition of digital play or digital toys. Social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, TikTok, etc., are interactive technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of content through virtual communities.
Social media use is not appropriate for children, and it is generally recommended that children be at least 13 years old before using social media.
What are traditional toys?
The concept of play has not changed over time, however, what has changed is the definition of what constitutes a toy.
Traditional toys are physical play objects that do not include digital or computer technology. They can be categorized in a variety of ways, such as, toys for:
- Symbolic or pretend play (e.g. miniature figures, dolls, cars, trucks, play food and kitchen items, dress-up items, etc.)
- Construction and building (e.g. blocks, building sets, shapes, puzzles, magnet toys, train sets, etc.)
- Art (e.g. drawing, coloring, painting, clay, etc.)
- Thinking, language, and social skills (e.g. board and card games, toy letters, etc.)
- Sensorimotor play (e.g. sand and water play, clay, fidget toys, etc.)
- Physical activity and gross motor skills (e.g. push and pull toys, balls, scooters, bicycles, playgrounds, etc.)
What are digital toys and what is digital play?
Digital toys are toys that contain digital or computer technology. These toys may look similar to traditional toys or they may look completely different.
The range of digital toys is constantly changing. When it comes to digital toys, (other terms could include technology toys or electronic toys) there is no one standard definition.
Digital play can encompass many different playful activities that children might engage in using digital devices and toys. Some examples include:
- Tablet and smartphone apps for children that offer interactive games, puzzles, and learning activities.
- Video game consoles or devices that provide a vast array of age-appropriate digital games.
- Interactive and robot toys that are programmable and offer interactive play such as interactive pets and coding robots.
- Electronic building, coding, and robotics kits that introduce children to programming and robotics in a fun way and may combine physical building tasks with digital elements.
- Activity trackers and smartwatches that combine real-world and digital experiences.
- Educational software tailored for children’s learning, covering subjects like math, science, and language.
- Virtual reality devices designed for children and offering age-appropriate virtual experiences.
- Artificial intelligence-driven toys that can interact with and adapt to a child’s preferences and abilities.
Many parents are cautious about play with screens or digital toys in the early childhood context, but there are potential opportunities for creative and playful experiences for children with digital activities.
Understanding the difference between digital play and screen time
With digital play, children engage in play activities using digital devices, possibly using interactive apps or creative software. These activities can be both constructive and educational, and may incorporate the use of traditional physical toys and objects.
Screen time is a broader term that encompasses any time spent in front of any screen, including television, computers, and gaming or mobile devices (smartphones, tablets).
The distinction between digital play and screen time lies in the nature of the activities engaged in and their potential impact on a child’s development. Digital play is generally more interactive and can offer educational and other benefits, whereas excessive or unsupervised sedentary screen time, especially on passive, non-educational content, can have potential negative consequences for children.
Benefits of digital play
Technology is rapidly changing and can become a valuable part of children’s play. These days, digital play is considered as a recognized mode of play with potential benefits. Participating in educational, interactive, age-appropriate digital play with an engaged adult can be a positive experience for children.
- Digital play can promote a similar range of learning outcomes as those associated with more traditional play, and can include supporting problem-solving, attention, creativity, imagination, and social skills. Also, specific skills, for example, phonological awareness or mathematical concepts, can be enhanced. Digital toys are widely accepted by children in general. This creates positive associations which may encourage learning, attention, and engagement.
- Digital play has been shown to elicit similar kinds of play that are found with traditional toys. For example:
- pretend play has been observed in digital play where there is enactment of real-life scenarios in a digital environment such as playing house or going shopping
- role play in a digital context can happen in which children might take on a role that would not occur in real life, for example, being a superhero
- imaginative play can take place in a digital context in which children pretend that things are otherwise
- creative play can happen when children explore, develop ideas, and make things in a digital context
- mastery play in a digital context can happen when children attempt to gain control of environments, such as in creating a virtual world
- exploratory play in a digital context happens when children explore objects or spaces in order to find out information
- The expanded view of digital play means that, far from being a sedentary activity, digital play can take place with a range of active pursuits that do not depend on an interface with a traditional TV or computer screen. For example, using nature exploration and identification apps, activity trackers, age-appropriate movement (e.g., yoga or dance) and fitness apps, walkie-talkies, or Go-Pro cameras can potentially enhance physical play.
- Digital play can enhance the parent-child relationship. Since children are highly interested in general with digital toys, parents can use these toys to facilitate their child’s engagement in parent-child play, which is a necessary part of healthy child development. Recent empirical evidence has found that “co-playing” digital games between parent and child can facilitate parent-child interactions and promote playful conversations, which will help to strengthen the parent-child relationship.
- These days, the prevalence and accessibility of technology, for example in schools, increases children’s need for being familiar and comfortable in using these tools. Access to and an understanding of technology is an educational necessity. Digital play supports operational skills for learning how to control and use technologies.
- Because of widespread use of technology in today’s society, children may gain a sense of confidence with peers in being able to discuss and interact around technology.
- It is thought that exposure to digital tools and technologies offers different ways of playing, thinking, and orientations to learning than are possible in non-digital contexts.
- Adaptations of toys using digital technology to accommodate a motor, visual, or other disability can be important for children with special needs.
Here’s something interesting: There has been growing interest by professionals, such as play therapists and psychologists, to incorporate technology into the therapy process.
Controversy over digital toys
Although there are definitely some benefits with digital toys, the American Academy of Pediatrics has found that there is presently no evidence to suggest that possible benefits of digital toys match or are better than those of active, creative, hands-on, and pretend play with traditional toys.
Although screens themselves are not inherently bad, they can displace activities that are key to child development. Here are some key points for parents to consider:
- For healthy development, the human brain is designed for and needs face-to-face social interactions, for example, as in play activities between parent or caregiver and child or in children’s peer play. Children develop and learn best through face-to-face interactions with parents and caregivers when the interactions are experienced live, in real time and space, and with real people.
- Not only do children need face-to-face social interactions, they also need to use their hands to explore and manipulate to strengthen certain areas in the brain important for learning and self-regulation. Traditional “physical” toys encourage this type of manipulative and sensorimotor play.
- For children, physically active movement and play using large muscles is necessary for healthy development and to avoid known health risks, for example obesity, which is now considered a major problem for many children. Traditional toys encourage physical movement and activity, whereas electronic games and digital media generally encourage inactivity.
- Digital toys often have a predetermined use, whereas traditional toys can be open-ended so children can more easily be creative and use their imaginations.
- Digital toys have the potential to reduce the frequency of parent-child play interactions. Electronic toys and media by themselves will not provide children with the interaction and parental engagement that are critical for their healthy development.
- Excessive and unsupervised digital play can potentially increase the known risks of electronic media exposure, such as the promotion of aggressive behavior. The potential for these risks is especially great in the context of violence portrayed as humorous or justified, which can reinforce aggressive behavior and desensitize children to violence and its consequences.
Recommendations for parents
Traditional “physical” toys are necessities.
Parents can supplement traditional toys with digital toys, but not the other way around. Digital toys and adaptations can be used with traditional toys to enhance them, however, traditional toys should provide the foundation for a child’s toy collection
Actively choose and limit digital media use purposefully.
Set limits around digital play based on what digital technology is being used and your child’s individual needs. Here are some guidelines for different ages:
- Children under 2 years should avoid screens and digital media use (aside from occasional interactive video chatting). A range of research evidence suggests that infants and toddlers often fail to use information communicated to them through symbolic media such as images, models and video, and there are quite well-established findings on the negative effects of screen use at this age for cognitive development. There are no established benefits of media exposure for infants and toddlers, with the exception of interactive video-chatting to support long-distance relationships.
- For children 2 to 5 years, limit sedentary screen time to about 1 hour or less per day. Ensure that sedentary screen time is not a routine part of child care for children. Prioritize screen and digital play activities that are educational, active, or interactive over those that are not.
- For school-age children, parents should develop media plans that include individualized time and content limits and strive for balance with other health promoting activities. Digital play should not interfere with daily recommendations for physical activity (1 hour) and sleep (8-12 hours).
Select content from quality, non-commercial sources, to minimize exposure to advertising. Pay attention to messages about gender, body image, violence, diversity, and social issues when choosing content.
Turn off screens when not in use and avoid background TV. Maintain daily “screen-free” times. Limit screen use in public places and during family routines, such as at meals. Encourage and participate in activities unrelated to screens.
Strive to be present and engaged when screens are used.
Whenever possible, interact, co-view, or co-play with your child. Children co-viewing media together with parents can protect them against many downsides of screen time. It is particularly important to offer children guided interaction and support as they interact with digital media.
Familiarize yourself with the technology your child is using.
This helps you to understand what your child is being exposed to. Learn about parental controls and privacy settings. The Entertainment Software Rating Board reviews can be used to make informed decisions about the video games and apps your child should play. Supervise children’s use of digital media. This is essential to minimize adverse effects. Be firm about not viewing content that is not age-appropriate.
Minimize your own screen use around children.
This is especially important during mealtimes, play, and other prime opportunities for social learning. Parents should review their own media habits, and make sure to plan time for alternative hobbies, outdoor play and activities.
Serious negative consequences for children can result when screen-based technology is used as a form of unsupervised babysitting. Please keep in mind that electronic toys should not be a replacement for parent-child play activities, even though parents are very busy and electronic media is an easy way to keep children occupied.
Prioritize interacting face-to-face, play with traditional toys, and physical activity over digital play and screen use. Children require face-to-face interactions and active play with traditional toys to develop essential skills, such as language, self-regulation, and creative thinking.
Recognize that one of the most important purposes of play with toys throughout childhood is to facilitate warm, supportive interactions and relationships. Toys that are most likely to facilitate healthy development are those that are productively used for play together with an engaged parent or caregiver.
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Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2023.
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