Quality and moderation, keys to good apps use for kids

4 expert tips on using and picking the right apps for kids.


Screen time can be good for kids, provided parents make smart choices about how it’s used, says a University of Alberta speech-language expert.

“Really think about how to use devices in ways that are going to be most beneficial to your child, and like everything else, think about quality of the apps and moderation of use,” said LuAnne McFarlane, an associate professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine who explores how digital apps can be used by parents and speech therapists to support language development.

“Choosing apps is about making sure they are age-appropriate for your children, and striking a balance between screen time and time spent exploring other things the world has to offer.”

New guidelines from the Canadian Paediatric Society advise parents to shut down any kind of time with computer gadgets for children under age two, with the exception of video chats with faraway friends and family. Screen time for their older siblings should also be limited and parents, too, are urged to set an example by cutting down on their own use.

While too much time spent with a computer, laptop, portable devices like smartphones and tablets, and TV can lead to problems like obesity, disrupted sleep patterns, behaviour issues and loss of social skills for children, there is an upside to using well-chosen apps, McFarlane said.

“Many apps encourage imagination, creativity and give exposure to preschool concepts. And it’s helpful for kids to develop digital literacy—understanding what devices can do and how to use them—before they begin school.”

Good educational apps, like those reviewed by UAlberta speech-language students for parents to use with their youngsters, also help develop speaking skills, said McFarlane. To explore more resources for choosing kid-friendly digital material, she recommends visiting Common Sense Media.

Here are some general guidelines:

1. Pick interactive, real-world apps

For pre-school children, choose apps that you and your child can play together, and that relate to real-world events, like baking cookies or visiting the zoo. “These are things they might encounter in real life that you can talk about, and it introduces the idea of meaningful play with a partner.” Reading electronic storybooks is also a great way to spend time exploring apps with your child.

2. Tune in as a parent

“When children begin to use digital technology, parental involvement is key because they learn best through supported interaction with an adult.” McFarlane said. “As much as possible, be part of whatever your children are doing on the computer or tablet and stay close by so you can observe their behaviour. If you see them tuning you out, it’s a sign they need to take a break. Talk about how everyone in the family uses media and what sensible guidelines are for that.”

A good example would be ‘device-free dinners’, where all screens are set aside during mealtime.

3. Teach digital citizenship

This concept needs to be taught as soon as children begin going online, McFarlane said. “Parents need to have explicit conversations with their children about online safety, privacy and bullying. Teach and model respect, kindness, tolerance and be clear about how that also applies to the online environment. If it’s not OK to tease another child in person, it’s not OK to do it online.” As well, children should be encouraged to tell their parents, teacher or another trusted adult if they are being harassed online.

4. Tap an app for personal expression

Older children can use apps to create music, stories, videos and art. “Digital resources offer a rich learning environment that lets kids find inspiration, information and ways to think beyond games and explore their interests and talents.”