This post is part of our series on digital media and children under 3, published in collaboration with the magazine, Infant behavior and development. The featured research appeared in a special edition which focused on how young children interact with technology and ways parents can facilitate media engagement to promote positive development.
Key takeaways for healthcare providers
- Many parents look for clear guidelines on how to manage their children’s digital media use, asking “Is too much screen time bad for my child?” or “How much tablet time should my child get?” But the answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “less,” especially for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
- Instead of hard rules about how much digital media children should use and when, it can be more fruitful to think about how they use technology, what they do with it and who interacts with them while they use this media. This is especially important when looking at the effects on the vocabulary development of young children.
- The world in which young children grow up is digital. Rather than banning technology, parents should consider how it can complement their children’s learning, rather than distract from it.
Children’s use of technology and digital media is inevitable: focus on how and what they do with it
Imagine your own childhood and where you got to know new animals – a dog, fish or even a giraffe or elephant. Chances are it was from seeing the dog in the neighbor’s yard or watching an elephant at the zoo, perhaps augmented by stuffed animals or pictures in a storybook.
How children experience the world versus adults
Now consider where your child came across the concept of “dog” or “elephant.” In addition to the petting zoo, you may have added “in Paw Patrol” or “while playing ABCMouse” or even (for older kids) “in Minecraft”. How children experience the world today differs from how their parents did, or even how an older sibling would have learned before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Technology and digital media are rapidly increasing And present in everyday life for most western families. They are impossible to avoid for both adults and young children. Most parents have wondered if too much screen time is causing their child to lag or if certain applications can “fry children’s brains.” They wonder if it’s okay to let their child use a tablet now and then, or what applications are educational. The truth is that there is no easy answer to these questions as the answer varies depending on the family, the child and the type of media consumed.
The advice for navigating this space as a parent or carer is also changing rapidly, partly because research is still producing results. Every day researchers add a little more to our knowledge of how children use technology, what it means for their learning and what consequences it could have later on. As we learn more about the role of technology and digital media in young children’s lives, it can be instructive to update how we think about technology and look to the future.
In a recent newspaperI investigated the role of digital media by checking whether questions about what and how much children use are not the right questions to ask. What if we asked instead: How do children use technology? What is their experience with digital media? WHO helps or interacts with young children while using screen time at home?
Questions can also be asked about how the digital context differs from real-world experiences, how the content of digital applications differs from the content in books or toys, and how each child and household can be unique in their use of and needs to technology.
Learning in a digital context differs from learning with real items
Digital applications are often less social than real-world interactions, with fewer interactive elements. Even if an application or program has an identifiable human character, it often does not take into account the child’s reactions or behavior or has a low quality of an interaction (for example, it asks hypothetical questions but does not give the child time to comment).
Most parents have wondered if too much screen time is causing their child to lag, or if certain applications can “fry children’s brains.”
We know that having dyadic — real-time, back-and-forth — is conversations essential for children’s language development. The more digital videos replace everyday conversations such as supermarket chatter or bedtime rituals, the fewer words and language skills children learn. Nevertheless, when technology is used in ways that make the context social – like hooking up with grandma on video chat or play a joint game in one application – improve children’s learning and social connection.
Digital learning allows for less exploration
In addition to being less social than actual conversations, digital contexts are also less rich and allow less exploration. Cartoons and 2D drawings are common in digital media, and many features of the real world simply cannot be replicated, even in virtual reality (for example, the technology for virtual smells and flavors is still developing and uncommon outside high-tech centers). This means that the digital context at home is simpler and of lower quality than what real life can offer a child.
But that doesn’t mean kids can’t learn from digital media. Rather, it means they’re more likely to do when experiences that can’t be replicated online (e.g. smells, tastes, 3D shapes) are complemented off-screen. For example, if a child learns the word “milk” on an application, they can see the shape of the milk carton, notice the white color, and discover that it is a drink.
But if the concept of milk is only presented in simple images on a screen, richer details about real milk cannot be captured (e.g. texture, material). For example, on a screen, spilled milk may look similar to spilled glue. Only when children explore the real world, such as during mealtimes, can they gain critical knowledge through touch, such as understanding the watery texture of milk and avoiding a glue-eating accident.
Digital content differs from real-world experiences
The recorded dialogue that makes up most digital media is often slower and more formal than what children hear at home. Similarly, objects in a photo are viewed from only one angle with no option to rotate, touch, or attempt to eat the item. These limited views are harder to learn from in the moment. They also make it harder for kids to transfer tablet learning to the real world; in a phenomenon called the transfer deficitCan children learn the name of a new toy in a video, but fail to recognize the same toy in real life?
However, when kids get a real-world foundation first, it may be easier for them to recognize those items and learn more about them when they appear in digital form. In addition, digital worlds make it possible for children to have a wider variety of experiences – seeing fairy tales in action, or new examples of exotic animals that go beyond the static storybook. This kind variation is beneficial, especially when learning new words. So digital content isn’t inherently bad, but it’s essential to complement it with real-world experiences.
Learning with digital media must be adapted to each individual child
How children interact with digital media varies based on their age, which can change what children do with it, which in turn affects how technology can affect their learning. For example, at the age of three, most children know the names of over 300 different real-life objects and are beginning to expand these labels to new items, including those in digital form. But they may struggle to transfer learning in the reverse way – from a tablet to the world. Similarly, by the time most children are four, their cognitive maturity has progressed and the transfer deficit is less of a hindrance to learning.
Essentially, as they grow older and gain richer social experiences, children learn how to learn. Once they know how to learn, they can extend that new ability to new places, including technology.
When technology is used in a way that makes the context social, such as connecting with grandma via video chat or playing a collaborative game in an application, children’s learning and social connection improve.
At the same time, every child is different, with unique strengths and backgrounds. Some children with a visual or hearing impairment may need a tablet for adjustment purposes. Other children may be extremely shy but can slowly gain confidence in communicating by using FaceTime.
There are also wide variations in how different cultures and families of different socioeconomic status use technology, with children’s previous experience of technology varying as much as how it is used. For these reasons, it is difficult, if not impossible, to give general advice on whether or not children should use technology, or how much screen time they should have.
Focus on how and what children learn in both digital and real-world experiences
The future of children includes technology. And that technology looks different from what parents and caregivers have experienced, and will differ even more in a few years. As the digital landscape changes, parents need to look for digital experiences that are interactive, driven by children’s curiosity and variable, and can be complemented with real-life experiences and social interactions.
But parents and carers shouldn’t worry too much either. Providing children with rich real-world interactions and their exposure to technology is complemented by a variety of other experiences opens up opportunities for deep learning. Instead of wondering whether there should be more or less screen time, parents should think about how and what their children learn and delve into the child world to interact with them.