• Analysis
  • October 29, 2018
  • 10 minutes
  • 0

What is digital technology really doing to kids’ development?

The way kids engage with screens, as well as just the time, is what's important

Our adult lives have become dominated by digital technologies. It’s hard nowadays to spot someone waiting for a train or a bus who isn’t staring at their smartphone.

But increasingly, even the very youngest children are starting to exhibit similar traits. Almost half of all children less than two years old have used a mobile device, and, on average, use them for seven mins per day. For two- to four-year-olds, it’s one hour and two minutes per day.

But what effect is digital media having on kids? And have the developers, designers and content creators behind this rapid growth of new forms of digital media taken account on the needs of the youngest among us? Answering these questions means thinking less about the medium kids are using, than about the content and contexts they are engaging with.

Digital childhood

The earliest years of life are crucial to a child’s later development. It’s in these years that the human brain develops at its fastest rate, but they’re also when it’s most at risk.

This means that children need to eat properly, live in nurturing environments, interact with loved ones and, crucially, be exposed to speech. Stress, neglect and poor or deficient diets, meanwhile, can adversely affect their development and hamper them for the rest of their lives.

It’s especially important during these years for a child to experience regular human interaction, be it with their caregivers or other children. This helps to develop the child’s brain and improve their acquisition of language. This can be achieved through playing, reading and otherwise interacting with children.

“It is no longer possible to talk about ‘online’ in any reasonable way”

For many, the fear is that digital media may inhibit this crucial period of development. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, recommends that no child from birth through to 18 months be exposed to any screen media, with the exception of video chats with family.

“With every new device that comes out, there is a moral panic,” said Rachel Barr, professor of infant cognition at Georgetown University, and director of the university’s early learning project.

Each new form of media, from radio through computers to television, has raised concerns about what effect it would have on children, she said, but the difference today is that “the speed of the release of new technology now has jumped exponentially”.

And more than this, it’s the penetration of technology into all aspects of our lives that makes interaction with it largely unavoidable.

“It is no longer possible to talk about “online” in any reasonable way,” said Baroness Beeban Kidron, a member of the UK’s House of Lords and founder of 5Rights foundation, an organisation pushing for recognition of the rights of children online.

“We must just talk about how we live, and make sure it’s applied in all circumstances.” Focusing on screentime alone would miss the general effects of new technologies on childhood.

Learning onscreen

There is still relatively little research on the effects of digital technology on development, but, according to Barr, the field is growing. In a new report, she and other expert colleagues from Zero to Three, an early childhood advocacy group, and the LEGO foundation attempt to assess the impact of digital media and screentime on young children.

Surveying available research, they show that digital media can be detrimental to early childhood development. Just as background television can distract children from focusing on play, or interaction with their caregivers, so can apps on phones and tablets.

Added to this, parents’ own media use — absorption in a smartphone for instance — can distract them from interaction with their child, and deprive them of the opportunity to experiment and develop.

“The term ‘screentime’ is really difficult because it doesn’t really describe in any way what’s happening”

An important part of early learning is when children transfer lessons to real life. Applying what they learn to their day-to-day experiences is an important part of growing up healthily. Unlike rote learning, it improves the mental capacity of the child.

And digital tools can be beneficial here. In one experiment, children learned better from an interactive game than from watching similar content on television. Toddlers were either shown a video of puppets emerging from hiding places in a room, or played a game where pressing the spacebar caused them to emerge.

When they later entered the room where the game’s and video’s action took place, the children who had played the game were able to find the puppets immediately, whereas those who had watched the television took longer.

Far from content

The conclusion is that far more than form, what matters is both content and context.

“The term ‘screentime’ is really difficult,” said Barr. “Because it doesn’t really describe in any way what’s happening — it doesn’t consider what the content of the media is, or the context in which it’s being used,” she said.

In the case of ebooks, researchers found for instance that children recall less information — plot, characters and narrative details — from ebooks with lots of interactive features than more straightforward ones. With young children, focusing the mind is more important than impressing with bells and whistles.

And digital content works better when caregivers interact with children as they consume it. Children need prompts and encouragement to learn. Using a tablet or a phone to quieten down a child has an adverse effect.


For Kidron, the question of whether enough digital content is designed for young children is the wrong question.

“I think the first thing that you have to always think about in relation to very young children is what their relationship with digital should be, irrespective of whether there’s stuff there for them or not,” she said.

Rather than focus on denying access to games, focus should be put on providing access to the things they need. “The first thing that we know about young children is that they need independent play in order to develop well,” she said. Without independent play, access to the faces of adults and space to move around, “it really doesn’t matter how well you’ve designed anything.”

5Rights is calling for the introduction of childhood impact assessments to the development process, so when digital content is designed, coders consider the needs of children when they complete their designs.

The aim is to ensure that digital content doesn’t prevent young children getting access to all the important things they need to develop. It would militate against making games or apps deliberately addictive or distracting.

Instead, research shows that recurring characters, slow pace and an education-first approach will make digital content work for children. But taking a screen-only approach will never be enough. — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: Flickr/Honza Soukup)


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