There are few moments as exciting as when our children start to speak and develop their language. This skill will become part of their personality and how they express themselves. It will connect them to the rest of their world in new ways.

As part of our developmental screening, HealthPartners and Park Nicollet pediatricians and family medicine doctors ask how a toddler’s speech is coming along. Our clinics also partner with Reach Out and Read to give families developmentally appropriate children’s books. From the time a child is six months to five years old, he or she will get a new book each time the family comes in for a well-child visit. An expecting mother who has her 32-week OB visit at one of our clinics also receives a children’s book. This encourages her to begin reading to her baby right away. All of the books that families receive are paired with practical tips and advice on what Mom and Dad can do to be their child’s first teacher. It helps parents learn how reading will support the growth of their child’s vocabulary and brain. That’s part of our Children’s Health Initiative.

“We believe this is extremely important because research has shown that books are best for our youngest children, particularly those under three,” said Park Nicollet Pediatrician and Reach Out and Read MN Medical Director Nate Chomilo, MD. “However, for parents who are just trying to give their child the best start and chance to succeed, new technology has a lot of allure.”

Can screen time actually be educational? Is there any amount of time that a child can spend looking at a screen that’s “healthy”?

Dr. Chomilo gives recommendations on the use of educational apps, for infants to school-age children.

Birth to three years

Currently there is no evidence that educational apps on tablets, phones or other devices show any benefit for those under age three. They may actually be harmful.

Trying to distract a fussy toddler is the most common way I see parents use apps. Apps can help when a child is getting shots. Or, they can help when getting a nasty cut repaired with stitches. They’re also okay to use in occasional, unavoidable situations when your child has to be relatively confined. Think a long car ride or airplane travel. But using electronics in everyday life as “shut up toys” is increasing. This is not good for our kids’ growing brains. They need to be able to calm themselves down and self-regulate without a screen. Out running errands with your child? Taking him or her on a short car ride? Going out for dinner as a family? Do your best to resist the urge to shove your phone or tablet in front of your child. Have a few go-to toys or methods of distraction in your back pocket that are not electronic.

Apps don’t provide the vital human interaction early learners need. Even so-called “educational” apps fall short in engaging youngsters’ brains in the way they need. “Kids need laps, not apps.” That’s what my colleague Dr. Dipesh Navsaria says. He’s a pediatrician, librarian and Medical Director of Reach Out and Read WI. Our young ones develop empathy, social skills, problem-solving, visual and motor skills by exploring their environment. They need to interact with other children and adults. And, they need to play in unstructured, creative ways.

Three to six years

Certain apps can benefit children at this age. However, they should always be used in combination with human interaction. They should be just one of many methods used to help kids learn. And, as a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows, they should not be used too much. According to that study, excessive screen time is associated with children having negative behavior. It’s also linked to attention and learning problems, which can lead to lower academic performance. And, it’s correlated with childhood obesity.

Storybook apps with games or other “hot spot” activities that pop up in the middle of the story are not beneficial. These interruptions cause distraction. That impairs young children’s ability to learn and retain material. But, if a caregiver sits and engages with apps alongside children, they can grow their vocabulary at an incredible rate. What’s important is that the caregiver asks questions that connect the stories and images to the child’s actual life. There is also some evidence that animation can help children with language delays learn. This feature of electronic books reinforces the connection between images and words. But, it’s still best to pair them with one-on-one human interaction.

School age and teens

Our brain processes reading on screens differently than the printed word. Think about how you scroll through your Twitter or Facebook feeds. Your eyes dart around the page. There is evidence that the more you read on screens, the more your mind starts to skim. This starts at a young age. So still be careful about how much time your child spends reading on screens. If a deeper understanding is needed, it’s better to read from a printed book or text. And if the technology your child’s school is using makes reading off a screen unavoidable, try to still reserve some time each day for non-screen reading.

Bottom line

As a parent, you are your child’s first teacher. No app can replace that. You can enhance your child’s reading experience beyond any bright lights or sounds a tablet or phone can generate. Every minute you spend with your child is exponentially more meaningful to his or her developing brain. And remember, story and play time is good for you, too! It gives you the excuse to snuggle your little one tight. And, there truly is no app for that.