Today’s children, often referred to as ‘digital natives’ or ‘Gen Z’ are growing immersed in a digital world. Technology is having a direct and dramatic impact on young children’s childhood and is shaping the ways in which they learn and develop. We are at an interesting juncture in terms of childhood: we now know more than ever about how brain architecture is built because of advances in neuroscience and at the same time we are witnessing exponential growth in the availability of digital and interactive technologies marketed towards young children. We now have a significant corpus of neuroscientific research that informs us about the essential building blocks required for optimal brain development. However, we are yet to map this research to digitalised childhoods.
There has been recent media hype around whether technology use is good or bad for young children. This historical argument is rooted in entrenched notions that early childhood should be devoid of technology. Opponents of technology use with young children claim that young children need hands-on learning experiences (which they certainly do) and that technology use detracts from this. This black-and-white, polarised argument is redundant in the 21st Century. The genie is out of the bottle: technology will not be un-invented. We have an abundance of research that confirms that young children learn from and with technology.
Instead of engaging in this debate, we need to look at how we can harness the rich potential of technology to optimise young children’s learning and development. Just like ‘food’, ‘technology’ is neither good nor bad. It is simply a tool. We would never classify all food under the one umbrella and label food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Nor should we classify technology in this way. There are certainly some calorie-laden and nutritiously-sparse technologies that are not developmentally-appropriate for young learners. However, there is a wealth of interactive and engaging technologies that provide unique and exciting opportunities for young learners. We need to investigate these further and share these ideas with parents and early childhood teachers.
How Much Should They Watch?
In Australia we have adopted the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) guidelines in regards to screen time. The APA guidelines recommend no screen time for children under the age of two years, for ‘fear of harm’ (research has shown that early TV viewing has been associated with language delays, obesity, sleeping problems and correlated with attentional problems) and displacement effects (what else should young children be doing instead of using a screen). For children aged two years and over the APA guidelines recommend no more than 1-2 hours of total screen time per day. It is important to note that whilst these guidelines are based on rigorous scientific research, much of this research corpus s based on passive use of technology such as TV or DVDs. We now have a wealth of more interactive and engaging technologies that present new opportunities for young learners. Sadly, research on interactive media and young children has failed to keep pace with the technological advancements.
Despite the recommendations about screen time by the American Academy of Pediatrics, many parents and child development and media specialists question these recommendations. It is difficult to specifically quantify how much technology is the right amount and whether this digital exposure will compromise child development. Researchers are unable to keep up with the exponential growth in new technologies. At the same time, children’s toy, educational and media companies are producing an expanding range of digital products, from toddler-tablets, video-game consoles, book apps and interactive television programs, geared towards young children. This hyper-connected, always ‘switched on’ world in certainly changing childhood, but we research is yet to inform us on how and what this is doing.
Problems With this Approach-
There is a dire lack of research on interactivity. A screen is a screen is a screen is a meme. This approach groups all screens under the one umbrella. The way a child responds to a TV program is very different to how the use a video game or plays with an app. Therefore, different technologies elicit different levels of thinking. The current APA Position Statement does not take into account interactive screen use.
So What Should We Do Instead?
Rather than focus on HOW MUCH screen time a child consumes, parents and teachers should focus on WHAT and HOW they are engaging with screens.
Children need a media diet that is balanced and laden with nutritional technology goodies that enhance, not detract, from early learning.