Child Development

How to Support a Child’s Media Diet

By: Annika Anderson, MPH

In a world that is more digitally active than ever before, childcare professionals, physicians and caregivers are toggling widespread beliefs about children’s media use and whether it hinders or promotes development. Adults who facilitate children’s media use should consider not only whether it is good or bad for children to use, but rather how it may be good and how it may be bad. Similar to other health behaviors we are mindful of monitoring, we should be selective and intentional about the media our children interact with and ensure they follow a proper media diet.

There are several social, environmental and developmental conditions that affect how and why children use the media they do, including the degree to which they have access. As technology and media become more prominent in our everyday lives, child-facing systems, practitioners and caregivers should consider how media can support their everyday activities with/for children.

Children’s media is ripe with opportunity for children to “connect, learn and play,” according to the report Navigating Youth Media Landscapes: Challenges and Opportunities for Youth Media. Equally important to the media selected is how children engage with it. Adults can scaffold children’s media experiences to strengthen impact across the developmental domains (cognitive, linguistic, social-emotional, and physical). Let’s explore a few hypothetical examples.

Connect – It is a Monday afternoon and you see that your next patient for the day, Olivia, is receiving her influenza vaccine. Olivia is four years old, and you have been her pediatrician since she was born. You know that like many children, Olivia has a needle phobia. The last time you saw Olivia, her father let you know that she typically responds better to scary events when she can predict what happens next, so they told Olivia about today’s appointment earlier in the week. Even so, Olivia is clearly anxious in the waiting room. Her breathing is shallow and she is on the verge of tears. For this appointment, you consider connecting with her through media. You pull up a clip on how Daniel Tiger handles scary doctor’s appointments using the PBS KIDS App, and suggest to her father that they watch it together in the waiting room. In the clip, Daniel brings his favorite stuffed animal to his appointment for comfort, and thinks of happy moments in his life to self-soothe. When it is time for Olivia to enter the patient room, you ask her how Daniel Tiger handled his fear at the doctors. Olivia tells you that Daniel sang “close your eyes, and think of something happy” with his doctor, Anna, and that it helped him. You ask Olivia if she would like to sing that together and think of something happy, and she nods her head yes. As Olivia receives her vaccine, you sing the tune together. Afterwards, she tells you that she thought about a happy memory playing with her big sister, and it helped her like it did for Daniel.

Learn – Your child, Diego, is about to enter Kindergarten. For the past week, you notice that Diego has tried to skip brushing his teeth in the morning and at night. When you remind Diego that it is important to brush his teeth, he disagrees and tells you that he doesn’t need to. Before you pick out a book to read together that night, you suggest to Diego that you play a game together. You log onto Sesame Workshop’s game app and find the “Brush Those Teeth” game show. You and Diego co-view the screen, and Diego brushes the monster’s teeth with the mouse. As he plays, you point out that the monster has spinach in his teeth, and you ask Diego what kinds of foods may get stuck in his teeth from time to time. The game show hosts remind Diego to brush the front and back of the monster’s teeth as well as his tongue. When it’s time for Diego to brush his teeth, you both look for food particles and he scrubs his teeth the way that he scrubbed the monster’s in the game.

Play – It is 5:00 pm on a Wednesday and you’re leaving work to pick up your 7-year-old, Noor, at day camp. On your ride home, Noor tells you about how she played soccer with her friends and made arts and crafts during the day. When you arrive home, your partner, who has spent the day watching your newborn Maryam, asks if you can cook dinner. Noor shares with you that she still has energy to play before dinner, so you think about how you can cook and supervise her play at the same time. You close the refrigerator and pull up the PBS KIDS game app, where you find Xavier Riddle’s “Museum Maker.” Noor sits close by as you prepare dinner for your family, sharing all that she is learning about historical figures like Amelia Earhart. Noor proceeds to ask you questions about planes and pilots, and the fruitful conversation carries through dinner.

In the book “Preschool Clues” written by Angela Santomero, M.A, creator of Blue’s Clues, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and more, we are given the core components of a healthy “media diet.” Santomero asserts that children’s media should be educational, interactive and engaging.

Angela Santomero delivered the keynote address at the 10th Annual Help Me Grow National Forum in 2019. Learn more here.

Educational media bridges the artistic expression of storytelling with developmentally appropriate curriculum. When high quality children’s media is produced, educators and child development experts have a seat at the table. Through experiences with media, children should learn something new or have an idea reinforced that aligns with the core developmental domains. PBS KIDS, Sesame Workshop and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) are a handful of organizations that champion educational media according to these criteria.

Children’s media can be either passive, or interactive. The most meaningful experiences are generally interactive, where children are active participants of their learning and entertainment. Refer to the “Learn” example from above. Diego participated in brushing the monster’s teeth, removing the plaque himself to learn that there might be a benefit to brushing his teeth after all. Through the interactive game, Diego recalled the information he learned and applied it to his own hygienic practices. High quality media will “spark” a child to follow-up with what they learned, often times off-screen.

And lastly, children’s media needs to be engaging. The content is likely to stick with a child if it is if interactive, humorous, and aligns with their off-screen interests. In her book, Santomero describes the power of pausing. In Blue’s Clues, Steve, the host, breaks the fourth wall by asking the audience a question. Steve actually pauses to give children time to search for a clue or think about possible solutions. Engaging media will have this inviting element, setting the stage for children to resonate with characters, experiences, and storylines that feel relatable to their everyday lives.

Media has a distinct power to promote early childhood health and development. Childcare professionals, physicians, caregivers and other child-facing services can leverage media to enhance how children connect, learn and play in the 21st century.

For more information about children’s media and how it can promote child health, visit the links below.

Closing the Digital Divide



NAEYC Position Statement on Children’s Media

Common Sense Media

Sesame Workshop

CDC’s COVID-19 Parental Resources Kit – Adolescence

Annika Anderson, MPH, is Program Coordinator for Childhood Prosperity Lab, which is a program of Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health.

1 reply »

  1. Beautifully presented. So insightful Shows how effective media can be used to promote a child’s welfare in so many positive ways.

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