Technology. It’s everywhere. It’s in our homes, workplaces, schools, shopping centres, and most importantly, in our children’s hands. 11% of children under that age of 8 regularly use a cellphone/tablet, and that number is only growing. An increasing amount of parents claim to be using technology for educational purposes, and indeed there are newer and better technological resources for education every day. However, is it actually helping? Or are we just employing a digital babysitter, and justifying it by calling it “learning”?

We now have all the information in the world at our fingertips, sometimes we don’t even have to use our fingers — we can just speak! These rapid advancements in technology seem to provide endless opportunities for learning and growth in our children’s lives. However, if used incorrectly, technology can provide stumbling blocks, or hurdles, for our child’s educational journey (especially for younger children).

So instead of asking yourself whether they should have screen time, ask yourself these questions:

When is your child learning?

To discern whether your child is gleaning skills or knowledge from a so-called ‘educational’ application, consider the following things:

Your child is learning when they are active, not passive.

An app that actively stimulates your child’s brain will encourage engagement. Tablets are designed to foster engagement more than other forms (like watching a tv show or browsing the internet). It is important though, that you don’t mistake action for active engagement. Learning does not happen in your child’s index finger, it happens when your child mentally comprehends what action they are supposed to take. If you are trying to decide if an app is educational or not, think about how “minds-on” it is.

Your child is learning when they are engaged and undistracted.

With the advent of interactive learning, your child can see wild animals in their natural habitats, rather than just read about them. They can interact with letters, move them around, hearing them, and learn how sounds work. At the same time, these activities can serve to distract your child from their educational goal. Often, developers adopt a ‘more-is-more’ mindset and the consequent bells and whistles only hinder a learning objective.

Studies were done to observe the differences between adults reading kids electronic books, versus their printed counterparts. They found that with electronic books, the adults asked the 3-year-olds fewer questions, and their comprehension of the story suffered as a result. Be sure to question whether the technological activity your child is participating in is a helpful tool or just a distraction.

Your child is learning when they are consuming meaningful content.

Children are amazing. They can learn ANYTHING. But not everything is beneficial to learn. It is important that children are learning things that are relevant to their lives. For example, an app can teach a child their shapes, but they also need to learn how those shapes relate to real-world objects. A truly educational app will encourage deeper levels of processing, and draw parallels to real-world situations.

Your child’s learning is enhanced through social interaction.

One of that major draws of a tablet for young children is that they can use it all by themselves. Yet, research has shown over and over that social interaction assists learning. A good app will not seek to replace interaction, but rather, support it. A good example of this would be a hybrid app, whereby children are required to have some off-screen experiences, or where other parties are brought into the app experience. Another good instance would be an app that acts as a moderator when children work together to solve problems.

Is technology the best option?

For many tasks, it may seem like the easiest and best option is for your child to seek the answers online. But, online research requires a specific skillset. If your child is ill-equipped, they may find themselves getting lost or distracted. In this case, a peer-reviewed textbook would offer much better value. If you have deemed technology unnecessary, move it out of sight. It can be very difficult for a child to resist the temptation of technology if it’s easily available.

Quality over quantity:

Research shows that copious amounts of time spent online does not equal that same amount of time spent learning. But you could figure this out by just watching your child. Children are natural geniuses when it comes to using tech for entertainment, but they’re pretty green when it comes to using it for educational purposes. To help kids using technology for academic purposes, they need to be exposed to quality resources — ones that offer the things outlined above.

While not every digital source promotes active learning through guided exploration and social interaction, there are some out there! Parent’s need to take a prominent role in evaluating the content their kids are consuming and how long they’re consuming it for to determine whether is it is a help or a hindrance.

To sum up: when deciding to give your child digital educational time, ask yourself: do these apps/websites encourage active learning? Are they keeping my child engaged in the task at hand? Are they meaningful and relevant? Are they socially interactive experiences that guide my child to a learning goal?