Digital Technology and Children – The good and the bad

A healthy dose of screen time and technology can be very beneficial to our children, and is something that would be extremely hard to ban in this technological age. However when it is used in excess.




The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics state infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010). Children and youth use 4-5 times the recommended amount of technology. Like moths to a flame, 21st-century children gravitate to touchscreen-enabled tablets and mobiles – so much so, that a study across Australia, New Zealand, the US and Britain found more two- to five-year-old's are able to manipulate apps than tie their shoelaces or ride a bike.


However, given the relative infancy of these devices – and hence a dearth of studies into the effects on children of their long-term use – it’s becoming increasingly difficult for parents to decipher which apps stand to actually maximize their children’s learning. ‘We are still beginning to understand the possibilities that new technologies like iPads can have on experiences that engender learning for children,’ says Dr. Denise Chapman, a lecturer at Monash University and an early-childhood specialist for more than a decade in the US and Australia.


Dr. Chapman points to research from Dr. Jackie Marsh of the University of Sheffield, who said that ‘these virtual worlds are fast becoming a part of the online landscape of play for young children and rather than dismiss them as irrelevant, or deride them as potentially harmful environments, academics and educators need to examine their affordances more closely in order to identify what children gain from their playful engagement in these worlds and how their experiences can be built upon in early years settings and schools’. It is through play that children learn, Dr. Chapman says, and iPads ‘just happen to be a part of, and compatible with, children’s play’. Still, according to two surveys of US teachers released late last year, there is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks.


Scholars who study the role of media in society say no long-term studies have been done that adequately show how – and if – student attention span has changed because of the use of digital technology. But, as The New York Times reported, ‘there is mounting indirect evidence that constant use of technology can affect behavior, particularly in developing brains, because of The good and the bad of digital technology for kids. The jury is still out as to the educational benefits, or otherwise, of digital technology for children – and until a clearer picture emerges parental vigilance is paramount writes Karen Fontaine heavy stimulation and rapid shifts in attention’. Dr. Jordy Kaufman, a senior research fellow at the Swinburne University of Technology, is looking into the effects of tablet use in 140 three- to seven-year-olds. He has found that tablet use has no negative effects on executive function, which is the cognitive ability to exercise control and manage tasks such as planning and problem solving. He has also found that, for some children, touchscreens appear to motivate and enhance learning rather than hinder it.


Dr. Kaufman’s results indicate that calm, creative activities on the touchscreen, such as painting, were similar to their ‘real world’ counterparts in that they ‘do not seem to adversely affect children’s behavior or attention in the short term’.


Kristy Goodwin, director of www.everychancetolearn.com.au and a lecturer at Macquarie University, says her own research into the 150,000+ ‘educational’ apps available on iTunes found 72 per cent are aimed at toddlers and preschoolers, the majority of them promoting rote learning (a memorization technique based on repetition). However, she says iPads are not an ideal tool for rote learning and young children are better off using apps that stimulate creative expression, language development and problem solving.


‘In an ideal world, parents should be using iPads to enhance their children’s communication skills and opportunities for creativity,’ Dr. Goodwin says. ‘When they are not being used as a digital babysitter or a digital pacifier, there is a lot of upside to using them in the right way.’ In her book Screen Time, journalist Lisa Guernsey lays out a framework – which she calls the three Cs – for thinking about media consumption: content, context, and your child. She poses a series of questions such as ‘Do you think the content is appropriate?’ and ‘Is screen time a relatively small part of your child’s interaction with you and the real world?’, and she suggests tailoring your rules to the answers, child by child.

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