How to choose good online content

Many children under 5 engage in screen time, whether they are video calling with family, playing online games or watching their favourite programs. It is important to ensure they are getting the most out of it.

The quality of your child’s screen time matters

Not all screen time is created equal. Some TV shows, games and apps are more appropriate for toddlers, preschoolers and kids than others.

While it is important that screen time does not replace time spent in face-to-face play and communication, quality screen content can benefit children. It can support their learning and behaviour.

There is evidence to show that quality screen content can enhance your child’s learning, especially if it sparks their imagination and follows their interests. For example, a preschooler can get a lot out of playing with an app that lets them create a collage, design a character, paint or draw, as this prompts them to be creative and learn new skills.

For example, a program that explores issues like friendship, or shows characters being kind to one another, demonstrates good behaviour. By watching the program with your child, you can point out the positive behaviours and ask them questions about how they feel when their friends are kind to each other. You can also refer to the program later on to guide their behaviour.

Watching and playing online together and talking with your child about what makes a good quality game, app or program, helps to develop their communication skills and encourages critical thinking.

How to choose quality content

One tip for choosing good online content for children is to ask a series of questions about the app, game or program. It is likely that most will fit into one or more of the categories below. If the content does not fit into one of these categories, chances are it may not be as beneficial.

The concept of windows, mirrors and magnifying glasses has been used by early childhood development specialists including Chip Donohue, Kate Highfield and Warren Buckleitner. We have extended these ideas to how parents and carers can choose good online content for their children.

Windows, mirrors and magnifying glasses

When you think about your child’s screen time, ask if the game, app, program or device they are using could provide a window, a mirror or a magnifying glass.

Is it a window?

  • Does it give your child a view of something beyond their own experiences?
  • Is your child learning something new, about for example, deep sea life, dancing, animals or dinosaurs — or something else that interests them?
  • Does it spark their imagination and interest?
  • Does it inspire them to ask questions and make them want to learn more?

Is it a mirror?

  • Does it reflect your child’s interests and your values as a family?
  • Are they extending an activity they already do offline — like watching a video on how to decorate a cake, make a paper character or kick a goal in a soccer game?
  • Does it include common games or scenarios that kids like to play or act out, such as doctors and patients, zoo or farm animals, pirates and treasure, cooking and baking?
  • Does it include stories that have positive messages about friendship, being kind, taking turns or being polite?

Is it a magnifying glass?

  • Does it provide opportunities for your child to explore the world?
  • Are they learning a new skill like how to read, count, draw something or speak another language?
  • Does it reward creativity, strategy and planning?
  • Does it allow them to explore a physical space — for example, an app that guides you around a zoo or an art gallery, or a map to help you navigate on a bush walk?

Asking these questions can help you to choose quality content that is more likely to be beneficial to your child’s learning and development

Practical tips

  • Know the content — try out apps and games before your child uses them or guide them to watch programs you are familiar with.
  • Watch or play together — co-viewing and playing together with your child can encourage them to think critically. Read our advice on how to encourage good screen practices for your child and how to model good screen practices for your child.
  • Check the age range — use reviews and ratings to guide your child’s choices and check to see if the suggested age-range matches your child’s age.
  • Advertising — be wary of programs and apps that feature advertising or are built around consumer products, as this can be a sign that they are designed to sell these things rather than promote learning opportunities.
  • ‘Addictive’ games — be wary of games that make children feel like they need to keep playing. Instead, look for games that can be played in short bursts that allow children to take breaks and save their progress.
  • Gender and diversity — look for games, apps and programs that have positive messages about gender and diversity and, if possible, include an equal balance of female and male characters.

This material has been adapted with permission from the Australian Government eSafety Commissioner. Permission to adapt content does not constitute endorsement of material by the eSafety Commissioner.