ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Every trip comes with some downtime, whether it's on the plane or the train or in the back seat. Increasingly, one travel necessity for parents and sometimes even grandparents these days is a tablet or a smartphone loaded up for the kids. So how do you choose diversions that will be more than bleeping, buzzing distractions?
Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team has been researching this issue for some time, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: And backing up a bit, what are the latest recommendations for healthy screen time for kids?
KAMENETZ: So the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their recommendations last fall, and they're moving away from an emphasis on hours per day in terms of screen time and toward the idea of joint engagement with media - so to avoid too much solo media use, to make sure that there's a healthy balance with activities. Like, an hour of physical activity per day for kids is recommended. And also, they want to make sure that there's screen-free time in the day, like, for example, family dinner.
SIEGEL: But time spent on a long road trip or on a train doesn't allow for a lot of physical activity, so what are guidelines for choosing good apps for travel?
KAMENETZ: Well, it has to be something that's engaging and interesting for your kids. And ideally you want something that's not just sucking up time but has learning baked in. And it's important to watch out for apps that don't have a lot of in-app purchases. So something where you pay upfront is a lot less annoying to use.
SIEGEL: And I know you've said that some explicitly educational apps may in fact not be the best for learning. Why do you say that?
KAMENETZ: Yeah, so there's a paradox here. A vast number of the apps out there that are advertised as being educational are really kind of, like, digital versions of worksheets. That's not really the best for learning. If you can do something on pencil and paper, the experts say, you probably should. And there's no reason to do digital versions of worksheets. You want to have something that is encouraging open play and exploration because, you know, play is really a developmental need for kids. You know, there's apps out there that allow you to have a digital, you know - a digital virtual dollhouse or explore nature and explore the food chain or simply, like, a painting app where you can, you know, have something that's totally open-ended.
SIEGEL: You know, I remember when schoolteachers were remarking on the first cohort of children to come into school having watched "Sesame Street" for three or four years and what they were expecting in the way of how quickly and how entertaining everything...
SIEGEL: ...Really should go by. We've now had a few years. I have grandchildren in this age group who've been playing with smartphones and tablets. Have you heard - is there any research about how this age of kids, this cohort, might be any different from other kids?
KAMENETZ: Well, you know, that's really a valuable question. It's worth billions of dollars probably. There are certainly some negative issues that researchers are watching out for, such as addiction, that are cropping up in some vulnerable kids. There are some interactions that are being studied between kids that might have trouble self-soothing or have, you know, more problematic behaviors, and their parents might be putting them in front of screens more often. And it's hard to tell where the causal arrow points in that interaction.
On the positive side, we have decades of research dating back to the "Sesame Street" years that show that kids can learn quite a bit from educational media, especially when it's appropriate for them, when it's engaging and when there's parents around to kind of direct and encourage creative and expressive and collaborative use.
SIEGEL: Any more offbeat ideas for family vacations with a smartphone?
KAMENETZ: Yeah, so, you know, it doesn't just have to be all around the app. You can use a smartphone to get kids into traditional things. Like, there's karaoke apps on the iPhone. There's karaoke videos on YouTube. And there's also many different free versions of the license plate game. So you know, can use the phone to keep score while you spot license plates on the road.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Anya, thanks.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Robert.
(SOUNDBITE OF MINOTAUR SHOCK'S "MY BURR")
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