Terrible toddlers and terrific tablets: Should we be concerned?
Do children need technologies to learn? Are tablets and smartphones getting in the way of children’s development? Are we all in danger? Do screens destroy family life and parent-child relationships? A recent press release from the University of Boston, based on a commentary from Jenny Radesky, clinical instructor in developmental-behavioural paediatrics at the university’s School of Medicine, has received significant attention in the media and on social networking sites.
The moral panic around technology – what did the story say?
The press release reflects a generalised moral panic that exists in relation to the increasing pace of technologisation in our society. Concerns about the impact of technologies on children’s learning and well-being, and human relationships in general, are mainly opinion-based and expressed in relation to the potential evils and risks technologies pose. Quite often, stories associate children’s use of technologies with claims about what is ‘good parenting’ and the ways in which parents manage children’s screen time. Although the press release from the University of Boston did not produce any new research evidence, the story made headlines across the world. In the UK, the main outlets (The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph) ran it with speculative titles, which blamed interactive technologies for a raft of evils, from potential damage to children’s social and emotional development to children’s ability to manage simple art tasks or even play with building blocks! When readers scrutinised the evidence, several outlets backtracked and published disclaimers. The Guardian, for example, changed the title, from the original “Research says iPads and smartphones may damage toddlers’ brains” to “Tablets and smartphones may affect social and emotional development, scientists speculate”, and has since published a disclaimer to acknowledge the article was not based on research evidence, but on a commentary. In its Psychology section, it then published an evidence-based analysis of the original claims. As in this latter piece, we aim to offer some evidence to a contrasting vision, in which technology can be seen as playing a more positive role in children’s and families’ lives.
The evidence on young children and technology use
What do we really know about young children’s use of technology and should we be concerned? There is no doubt that children across the world, mainly in the developed countries, grow in technologically rich environments. The term ‘digital natives’ was coined by Mark Prensky in 2001, to represent children and young people who have their daily activities, such as social interactions, friendships, learning and leisure, mediated by technologies. Children and parents have embraced technology for a range of purposes and activities, and tablets, with the touchscreen interface and more and more accessible costs, make access to interactive technologies possible from an even younger age.
Claims that technology in itself is damaging for children have not been proven by research, which has mainly involved older children. A UK-wide study with a representative sample of over 2,000 children carried out by CHILDWISE Survey showed that young people aged 5-16 now spend more time online than watching TV, with YouTube and the online game Minecraft as the most popular online destinations. The survey found that tablets are now more popular than computers and have become bargaining chips for parents, who think of them as educational and more easy to control. Another Europe-wide study, EU Kids online, conducted across 25 European countries with children aged 9 to 16 years, provides a wealth of evidence on what types of technologies children access and the activities they engage in online and offline. The findings show that many children go online daily, mainly to engage with social network sites, use instant messaging, watch video clips and play games. Far from inhibiting social relationships, technologies are used by children to expand on their social networks and to keep in touch with family and friends, and are often a platform for arranging face-to-face activities. A follow-up survey, called Net Children Go Mobile, carried out in 2014 across 7 of the 25 countries, showed some changes in daily internet use between 2010-2014, mainly in terms of increased use, but also in terms of increased risks that children are exposed to. Examples include meeting people online that they had not meet face-to-face before and seeing sexually explicit or violent images, or websites which discuss risky behaviours, such as taking drugs, physical harming or suicide.
What about young children’s use of technologies? The CHILDWISE monitor 2013-14 showed that, as families acquire more technologies and technologies become more portable, children access a wide range of technologies from a young age. The ownership of tablets among young kids in the UK has doubled in 2013-14, says the same organisation. While less than 20 percent of the 0-2 year olds have access to tablets and mobile phones, among the 5-6 year olds, almost 90 percent have access to a computer/tablet, almost 80 percent can access the internet and one in three use a mobile phone. Under 5s spend on average 2 hours a day watching TV. Using data from the UK Millenium Cohort Study collected from reports of mothers of over 11,000 children, researchers at the University of Glasgow have examined the link between the amount of time children spent watching TV and playing electronic games at the age of 5 and problems such as emotional and behavioural difficulties, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention and pro-social behaviour later on, at the age of 7. Their findings showed a very small risk (0.13 point) of increased conduct problems by the age of 7 in children who watched TV for more than 3 hours a day at the age of 5, but no other problems from the ones hypothesised.
When it comes to mobile technologies, there is no evidence to suggest that tablets or other smart platforms are damaging to children’s social and emotional development, if used in moderation. Good practice suggests that parents monitor the content children access and, whenever possible, spend time with children using technologies as a medium for learning, by discussing the content together. A report published this year on Young Children (0-8 years old) and Digital Technology across seven countries found that digital technologies ‘are an important (but not dominant) part of children’s lives’ (p.7). Although young children are surrounded by a range of technologies on a daily basis, they are digital natives only to a certain extent, as their capabilities to use technologies are limited by their cognitive development and they needed parental guidance. Interestingly, young children mainly use digital technologies to play games and watch videos alone, but their use of technologies is balanced with other activities, such as outdoor play, arts and crafts and play with non-digital toys. Young children’s preference for tablets and smartphones was also remarked upon by all participants in the report. While the potential of new technologies to enhance children’s learning, imagination, creativity and play has often been mentioned by studies such as EU Kids Online and Young Children (0-8 years old) and Digital Technology, the commodification of technology and increased access to online platforms by children poses some issues, not as much in terms of children’s development, but mainly in terms of safety and risks that children can encounter online.
Should parents be concerned?
We see young children playing on tablets in cafes, doctors’ waiting rooms, when travelling in car seats, or on the beach when on holiday. There is no denying the children love the interactivity, and parents whisper (for fear of being judged as irresponsible or not ‘good enough’) that the screen keeps children absorbed (and quiet!). Should the parents’ job be to minimise children’s use of technology or rather help them embrace it and manage its use? And should parents be concerned if children learn to use technologies from a young age? The short answer is ‘no’. The evidence presented above clearly shows that children are not controlled by technology, or at risk in terms of their development (see the Guardian’s humorous piece on why toddlers may pose risks to tablets instead!). Far from trying to restrict children’s access to technologies, parents should support children to engage with technologies in a purposeful and balanced way and make the most out of their time on screen.
Do children really need technologies to learn? Of course not, but technology in the classroom or used judiciously at home can spark the imagination, help teach complex mathematical skills through game scenarios or engage children in ways that more traditional teaching methods or materials cannot. There is no denying that they pose challenges for teachers, as children become more and more used to more instant learning interactions and rapid responses required, for example, by game interfaces. Some studies (see a review here) have showed benefits to early literacy and numeracy and benefits in terms of engagement for children with disabilities. While more research is clearly needed to document the benefits of technology for children’s learning, there is no denying that teachers and parents will grow up as digital learners, and goals for their learning need to build on their skills to use technology in meaningful ways for learning.
The biggest concern that remains is in terms of parents’ and children’s knowledge about staying safe online. The big scale studies cited above found that parents were often unaware of their children’s actual use of apps and websites, including young children’s use, and seemed to underestimate the risks children were exposed to, through inadvertedly downloading apps, unsuitable content or adverts. This was the case when children used tablets, but also smartphones. Parents should ensure children access apps and websites they know and use security software, as adults’ strategies for managing young children’s technology use seems to be ‘patchy’. With the limited guidance available from schools and nurseries about keeping children safe online, parents need to ‘do their homework’ and ensure children’s interactions with technologies are modelled by clear rules of what content is safe to access and how to avoid online risks. Researchers recommend that parents of young children need practical suggestions for active mediation, such as safe settings, passwords, privacy protection and content filters and the risks associated with free websites and apps, mainly in terms of associated advertising.
So the best advice for parents, based on what we know from research, is this: encourage your children to use technology in a balanced and meaningful way, make sure they stay safe online and know about the risks and make technology use a social activity, by talking with your children about what games they play and other content they access. When it comes to technologies, the rules of parenting stay the same: love and support, encourage, keep children safe and set limits, learn and have fun together! Just a bit of ‘good enough parenting’ really.