Angry Birds may teach toddlers more than Dora

Letting your kids play computer games may not be such a bad idea.
Letting your kids play computer games may not be such a bad idea.

Guilty of letting an electronic screen babysit your children?

Depending what's behind it, you may be able to shake some of that parenting guilt.

Queensland University of Technology researchers from the Games Research and Interaction Design lab have released a paper looking at active versus passive screen time for young children, predominantly two to five-year-olds.

What they found was not all screen time should be considered equal and while government recommendations may advise just one hour of screen time for young children a day [and none for kids under two] it didn't take into account the difference between actively engaging in a screen activity and passively absorbing media.

“The major thing we had an issue with, with the government recommendations, was they treated all types of screen time as being equivalent,” Dr Penny Sweetser said.

“Whereas if you look at all the different activities which make up screen time, you could be TV viewing, using your computer, children doing their homework on a computer, reading a book using an electronic reader, playing video games on something like an iPad or engaging in physical games on something like an Xbox Kinect.”

The research team proposed screen time could be divided into at least two different types – passive, in which participants are sedentary and are passively exposed to media and active, in which participants are either cognitively or physically engaged with the media.

The researchers divided active screen time further – into cognitively and physically active screen time.

“For physically active games we found that they can actually be comparable to physical exercise - similar in intensity to light to moderate walking, skipping and jogging - and they actually have a host of other benefits," Dr Sweetser said.

"They can improve academic performance, social skills and self esteem, they can motivate young children to exercise and be more active in general and they can improve their academic performance,” Dr Sweetser said.

“If we look in terms of cognitive reactive, there is actually quite a substantial body of research that illustrates the benefits of active screen times in terms of children's cognitive development. Dr Sweetser said some of that research associated computer use during school years with improvements in school readiness, cognitive development, helping to facilitate social interaction and language use improvements, such as word knowledge and verbal fluency.

More specifically, video games had been linked to improved visual attention, problem solving, conductive reasoning, coordination and the tracking of multiple objects.

So while Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja is not the worst way to distract a bored child or keep them quiet long enough to finish your coffee, Dr Sweetser still recommends parental interaction.

“You might want to consider playing with them and engaging with them and making sure that the content they are using is appropriate, that is it is providing them with some sort of educational stimulation,” she said.

This story Angry Birds may teach toddlers more than Dora first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.