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Tech for kids isn’t ‘bad’—it just needs to be used carefully

What did we do with kids on six-hour road trips before iPads?


While many parents appreciate how well screens keep kids occupied and even have some developmental perks, it’s hard to avoid those nagging questions: Is the price we pay too dear to justify the frequent use of tech? How much is too much? Is one kind of tech better than another? Is it really as bad as we think it is?

There are some interesting answers to these questions—and some may surprise you.

The good: Some forms of tech promote development

Technology is a necessary component of modern life. "Using technology is essential to a child's education. To remain competitive in today's world markets, children must learn to use technology to their advantage,” says Dr. Jarret Patton, MD, FAAP. “However, all technology use should be in moderation."

Ben Graves, creator of social media-monitoring company Pharos Social, points out it is important for the parent to not only monitor how much total screen time kids are getting, but also what kind of screen time: Passive consumption—like when you veg in front of the TV, get pulled into a video game or get caught up on social media aren’t developmentally beneficial.

On the other hand, creative consumption, in which the child uses technology to learn and be creative, shouldn’t be quickly condemned.

Even then, passive media has its role. A recent study found that unless children are spending more than half of their free time playing video games, gaming has no negative impact on social development and can actually be likened to any other form of free play.

The bad: Overuse of tech can negatively affect physical, social and mental health

Sleep problems

How many teenagers check their phones as the last thing they do before going to sleep? Even young children may settle into their beds with short Netflix movies. You might notice that children have a hard time settling down after turning off their devices. That’s because the emotional stimulation has the opposite effect of a soothing bedtime routine, and the blue light that emanates from these devices actually affects circadian rhythms by throwing off the child's entire sleep cycle.

Social isolation

Living on social media gives teenagers a false sense of relationships when, in fact, they are alone in their rooms. David Ezell, CEO of Darien Wellness, sees hundreds of families affected by the overuse of technology. In his practice, he notes “a lack of eye contact, decreased ability to read emotion in others and less motivation to take risks and reach out to peers because online ‘friends’ will support them.” To mitigate this, experts recommend talking with growing kids about how social media doesn't compare to real socialization.

Developmental delays

Overuse of tech doesn’t just affect older kids. In one recent study, 20% of the infants evaluated spent an average of 28 minutes a day using screens—and every 30-minute increase in daily screen time was linked to a 49% increased risk of delayed speech development.

“The effects of screens on very young brains is still not fully understood, but I have not seen anyone in the field suggest there are benefits.” says Ezell. Connecting eyes and expressions—which screens can’t provide—with speech is essential in picking up the nuances of language.

Bottom line: It’s going to take some work on your part

With all the different apps on the market for babies, toddlers and older kids, it's important to remember that nothing replaces one-on-one interaction with a human.

Patton says children under the age of two shouldn’t have any screen time—and it should be used in moderation for kids older than that. As for educational programs or learning apps, Patton says parents should always be present to monitor use and reinforce instruction.

Enforce screen limitations and model appropriate screen behavior. Putting your phone away when you come home from work and leaving it there until the kids are in bed is a great way to model engagement and be an attentive parent. It sends a message to children that they are more important than a call or text.

Many parents reduce screen time by canceling their cable in favor of streaming services with better parental controls. Some families also choose to have device-free meals every night or use apps to monitor and limit children’s phone and tablet use. There is also a movement that advocates waiting until eighth grade to give a child a smartphone. For communication and emergencies, flip-phones are adequate—and less addicting.

From infancy to adolescence, children grow up with technology—that’s the reality. As their guardians, it is our job to limit its use, model an appropriate relationship with technology and teach them that human interaction cannot be replaced. It’s possible for your children to have a healthy relationship with technology, and it starts with you.

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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

BUY


This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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If you could only have one product for your hair, makeup and skincare, what would it be? Chances are your bathroom cabinets are filled to the brim of impulse Sephora purchases and random products a friend recommended—but do they really do any magic for you?

Moms on Chairman Mom wanted to know what other mamas were obsessing over—the 'hero' beauty product in their mix—and they had some amazing recommendations.

From long-lasting deodorants and classic coconut oil to retinol serums for a bargain, here's what they shared. *Adds everything to cart*

1. Go-to face peel 

"My go-to face peel is Ole Henriksen lemon strip flash peel. It's magic for my skin! I also love Paradox Beauty's face oil which I use at night. For hand lotion, the only one I will ever use is First Aid Beauty, it's so thick and luxurious and not oily at all."—Mrs P.

2. A blowdryer totally worth the money 

"A lifesaver is the Dyson hair dryer—it IS worth the money if you have challenging hair. Saves time and tames it a lot without damage."—Katelyn

3. Couldn't pick just one

"I have two. One is The Ordinary! Products are generally around $6. The product selection is a bit overwhelming, but I highly recommend the retinol—my spa/facial/Botox place charges over $100 for a similar product. I'm also super obsessed with Deck of Scarlet. They send you a palette every other month that's almost an all-face palette and there are videos on how to put it on your face. My makeup looks very put together now."—Cynthia

4. Color correctors

"Sephora color correctors. I've never liked foundation and powder doesn't cover my sun damage spots, but this stuff does an amazing job of 'me but better'."—Cindy

5. Multi-tasking tinted moisturizer

"Suntegrity 5-in-1 Tinted Moisturizer. I cannot get enough of this product! It has 20% zinc oxide (physical sun barrier, better for you than chemical sunscreens), and the slight tint makes it a perfect replacement for my foundation. Also, clean / nontoxic formulations! I slather this on daily and I swear that it has actually made my skin better as a result of daily use."—N.M.C.

6. The best concealer

"Tarte shape tape. Finally a concealer that doesn't crease. For real."—A.

7. Natural moisturizer 

"I swear by coconut oil for my body moisturizer. Sometimes I have the kind in a jar that solidifies when cool and sometimes I get the fully liquid type. Either way, I always rub this all over my body right after a shower and it's kept my skin very moisturized and soft without feeling greasy."—Amy

8. The only mascara you need

"Benefit's Yes They're Real Mascara is beyond anything. It took me months to listen to some of my colleagues at work and now that I have, I feel sad I ever put anything else on my eyes."—Amanda

9. A natural deodorant that works 

"My latest incredible find is Schmidt's Magnesium + Charcoal deodorant. I have literally tried every natural deo, and this is the first one that truly works. My husband uses it, and I've recommended it to burly man friends too, who swear it works for them as well."—Emily

10.  Face freeze

"I randomly read about Urban Decay "face freeze" and it's brilliant for those days that you have to go straight to work to an event and don't want to have to re-apply (never works for me) or show up with your make up half gone. The trick is to spray it on BEFORE applying mascara and it really does keep it "fresh" all day."—Tman

11.  Favorite (affordable!) face wash

"I love Desert Essence Thoroughly Clean Face Wash which is inexpensive and gets everything clean without feeling tight and dry."—Cskott

12.  Lip mask


"Bite Agave Lip Mask! My lips can never get hydrated enough and after a weekend in Tahoe where they got particularly dry, my friend gave me some of this on the drive home. GAME CHANGER."—Sarah

Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work. We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.You might also like:

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    In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

    New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

    The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

    "In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

    The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

    Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

    So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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    It was a busy weekend for Britain's royal family as the former Kate Middleton's BFF (and Princess Charlotte's godmother) Sophie Carter married Robert Suggs.

    Five-year-old Prince George and 3-year-old Princess Charlotte were in the wedding party, and the photos suggest that Prince George was feeling playful on this special day. He may be a royal, but he's also just a kid.

    The English press noted that Prince George "stole the show" at the Carter-Snuggs nuptials, but to us it looks like he was taking his pageboy duties pretty seriously (okay, maybe that's mock-seriousness).

    HIs sister wasn't feeling quite as cheeky as Prince George was, and spent some time in the arms of both her mother the Duchess, and the bride, her godmother Sophie Carter Suggs.

    As royal watchers pointed out, Prince George and Princess Charlotte know their way around a wedding, having been part of three wedding parties in the last two years. They walked in their aunt Pippa Middleton's wedding to James Matthews last year, and of course in their Uncle Prince Harry's wedding to Meghan Markle earlier this year.

    Prince George's outfit for the Carter-Suggs wedding was more similar to the look he sported on Pippa's big day than the more regal attire the pageboys donned for Prince Harry's wedding. Princess Charlotte's dress this weekend was light, classic and simple, similar to both the dress she wore at the Middleton-Matthews wedding and her royal wedding frock.

    And Princess Charlotte wasn't the only wedding guest in a repeat look. Her mama, the Duchess of Cambridge is known for re-wearing her classic outfits. For her friend's blue-themed wedding, Kate reached for a cornflower blue coat and coordinating lace dress by Catherine Walker, an outfit she was first spotted in when the Cambridge family toured Berlin in July 2017, according to What Kate Wore.

    Re-wearing an outfit to a friends wedding isn't just practical, but it's a nice way for Kate to make sure that her own outfit doesn't attract more attention than the bride's. Her adorable children attract enough attention as it is.

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    I'm often asked what parents can do to get their kids to eat healthily. While there are no quick fixes, I've gathered a list of proactive, research-based actions parents can take to positively influence their kids eating habits.

    1. Eat well during pregnancy + lactation

    Helping kids accept nutritious fare starts at conception. The amniotic sac not only transmits nutrition but the flavors of the food eaten. Studies show that the wider range of flavors babies are exposed to in utero and through breast milk, may help to increase their preference for a more diversified diet later on.

    A 2001 study published in Pediatrics assigned 46 women to consume either water or carrot juice for 4 weeks prenatally. When the infants were given carrot flavored cereal at 6 months of age, the babies whose moms drank the carrots juice had few negative expressions and seemed to enjoy the cereal more.

    2. Get in as much variety as you can

    Most babies and toddlers under two are willing to eat just about anything. Research suggests that the more dietary variety kids get in the very early years, the more accepting they will be later on.

    So start with bland fruits and vegetables but up the ante. Use herbs, spices, garlic and onions to make food taste good. Once kids can eat table foods, let them join you at the dinner table. Your mission is to get them to try as many flavors as possible.

    3. Make the unfamiliar familiar (and accessible)

    Research suggests that repeated exposure is the most powerful tool when it comes to helping children accept new foods. A 2003 study published in Appetite showed daily exposure was much more effective than nutrition education or doing the same old thing.

    But experts in behavioral economics say parents need to go a step further by making healthy foods highly accessible. So lay out an attractive bowl of fruit on the kitchen table. Include veggies with dip with meals and while you're preparing dinner. Studies show the visibility of food increases desire to eat it.

    4. Show them how it's done

    "I've learned that at this stage, they so much want to be like their parents, so if I'm enjoying a nice green salad and broccoli or asparagus, they want to try it too," says Lauren O'Connor, MS, RD, dietitian and mom of twin preschoolers.

    Now this may not happen automatically for every kid, but research supports the notion that kids are more likely to eat a food when they see their parents eating it.

    5. Make time for family meals

    Family meals combine the benefits of repeated exposure with role modeling. It also teaches kids how to behave at the dinner table and gives families time to connect. I know your schedules may be wacky, but get this habit going as soon as you can.

    Kathleen Cuneo, PhD, from Dinner Together says that switching from special kid meals to family meals was the turning point for her now teenage daughter. "I saw a positive change when I stopped nagging her and we made a commitment to family meals," she says. "When I backed off and she was expected to eat from what was made available, she became open to trying new foods."

    6. Entice them with food names

    Parents can learn something that restaurant owners already know — you need to make food sound tantalizing. In his studies, Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, demonstrates that the name we give a food can make a big difference in how children perceive it. In one of his studies, when the researchers called veggies names like "X-ray carrots" or "princess peas" kids were 60% more likely to try it.

    "Dinosaur broccoli reminds kids of dinosaurs—and they think they are cooler," he says. "Re-naming food increases its appeal"

    7. Use familiar sauces + dressings

    Research suggests that children are more likely to accept new foods if they are similar to other recipes they like. In a previous post, Alexandra Logue, PhD, Psychology Professor and author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking, discussed how some fussy eaters are super tasters—and she used to be one of them.

    When she first started eating salad her mom put a lot of her favorite dressing in the bowl and a small amount of vegetables. Over time the dressing quantity decreased and the vegetables increased. This is how she learned to like salads.

    8. Engage them in the process

    Julie Negrin, certified nutritionist and cooking instructor, knows that getting kids involved in the kitchen can transform their relationship with food. She says that because kids feel little control over their day to day environment, helping with meals gives children a sense of ownership and makes it more likely they will eat the meal.

    "I encourage parents to have kids pick out new vegetables at the market or flip through cookbooks for menu ideas," she says. "Kids have been helping with the meal preparation in almost every culture for thousands of years. It's how they find their place in the "tribe" and the world around them."

    9. Help them make the health-body connection

    When certified pediatric dietitian, Angela Lemond, works with frustrated parents, she teaches them the three Es: Educate, Expose and Empower. The education part is helping kids understand how certain foods relate back to the health of their body.

    "I tell my kids how fruits and vegetables have super-powers," she says. "For example, I explain how these super powers put an imaginary shield around their bodies protecting them from germs and helping their boo-boos heal faster."

    10. Try new foods when they are hungry

    You probably notice there are times of day when your child is more hungry than others. Work with your child's natural appetite rhythm. If they typically eat small amounts at dinner but seem ravenous at lunch, try new foods then. And watch the in-between meal snacking and juice drinking that can be appetite killers.

    11. Go for the crunch

    It's not always the taste of veggies that turn kids off it's the texture. Researchers from Wageningen University provided kids (4 to 12) carrots and green beans that were steamed, mashed, grilled, boiled and deep fried. The kids preferred the boiled and steamed versions. Why? Because they were crunchier, had little browning and less of a granular texture.

    So experiment with different crunchy textures and see how it goes.

    12.  Pair the new items with old standbys

    Lisa Gross, dietitian and mom of two young kids said that when her daughter was two, and turned ultra picky, she was tempted to provide her with only her favorites (she loved pasta!).

    "I just kept offering the same food we ate but always offered fruit, bread and some accompaniment that she would eat," she says. "I hoped that she would outgrow this stage and now that she's five it's much better."

    13.  Serve fruits + veggies first

    According to a 2010 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, preschoolers served bigger portions of vegetables as a first course at 47% more.

    So put out the fruits and veggies while you're putting the meal together, your kids might eat whole serving of fruits and vegetables, and then some.

    14.  Make nutritious food fun

    When a group of 4 to 7 year olds were presented with two versions of fruit, one cut into fun shapes and the other not, the kids presented with the fun shapes ate twice as much fruit.

    While the researchers of the study published in Appetite say that the novelty can wear off, it's important to remember that kids like fun. And if we can present food in a fun and attractive way it can pique their interest and desire.

    15.  Give them a choice

    According to Smarter Lunchrooms, requiring kids to take a vegetable at school has no impact on consumption. But if kids are given the choice between two veggies, they consume 20 percent more.

    When you can, have your child decide between two items, the peas or carrots, banana or cantaloupe. This helps them feel like they made the decision of what vegetable to eat. And they might respond by eating it.

    And whatever happens, try not to stress, mama. Jennifer from The Mommy Archives said it well, "One of the feeding issues I had was with me. I realized that I was the one that was panicking when I made a meal and he wouldn't even try it. I would be so worried he wasn't getting enough nutrients. Once I let that go, and let him set the pace of trying new foods, our meals became so much less stressful."

    Originally posted on Maryann Jacobsen.

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