Screen and Device Time for Young Children

Let me start out by stating the obvious regarding the stance of technology use for young children.

When we say “young children” we mean children ages zero to eight years old (or about 3rd grade). Technology should not be used with children under two and if it is should be in the context of conversations and interactions with an adult. We encourage LIMITED exposure beyond two and even then only as a supplemental tool or as part of further research once children begin school. Again, zero tech for children under 2 years old is best!

I’m not against tech use at all, but I do encourage proper use of it. (Have you ever used a digital microscope? Those are awesome for researching a classroom topic with children!) The concern is that just like screen time, and with overuse, these devices are substituting actual interactions with digital and virtual ones, and replacing real experiences that a growing child (and their developing brain) should be having. The additional concern among some experts is that these devices could be changing children’s brains for the worse — potentially affecting their attention, motor control, language skills and eyesight (especially in under-fives, for whom so much brain development is taking place).

These are solid concerns that cannot and should not be dismissed. However, I have found that we have yet to understand the long-term effects and consequences of prolonged “device” time. We know the effects of “screen” time, but “device” time is different in the way it is used. We have the studies and the research and the position statements from both the AAP and even guidelines from NAEYC with the Fred Rogers Center based on solid evidence from decades of research on screen time. We know that the developing brain of children younger than five (especially) need that actual face-to-face interaction to later be competent social beings. Children rely on others to model and to recognize emotions at a real-life interactive multisensory level. Is this only important for little kids and not older?

A recent report showed a difference in one group of sixth-graders in recognizing emotions after being away at camp without their devices, vs. another group of sixth graders who spent the majority of their time with their devices. The results? The group that had five days of no electronics were able to describe facial emotions or other non-verbal cues in the study better than the other group.

Until we can gain enough solid research on the effects of device use in children, we want to make sure that device use does not replace actual interaction and exploration time. The research is just coming in on the effects of prolonged device use. We have to also consider the factors of how the research was conducted. We have to remember that the first smart tablet didn’t get invented until 2002, the first iPhone was released in 2007, and the first iPad wasn’t released until 2010. Those types of devices did not make it into the classroom right away and at the time were inaccessible to the general population due to several factors, cost being the main one. We finally saw an increase in sales in tablets for classrooms around 2010. This is also when smartphones along with tablets started to become more common in households.

Until we receive further evidence on device time as we have with screen time, we should lean to the side of caution and current research on how the developing brain has responded to screen and device use thus far: limited use and, when used, it should supplement the child’s learning. As a parent of two children (a teenager and a toddler), I fully understand the convenience of these devices. But as parents we can and should start with the following:

  • Monitor the apps installed, focus on apps that are interactive with the design to enhance feelings of success
  • Be present (and off of our OWN device) during usage time so as to ensure a human, interactive element is an integral piece
  • Stay aware of updates to devices and apps

We have to recognize that technology is not going away, and it is more and more prevalent in our daily lives. As such, we want to remind parents and those that work with children that guidelines have been put into place for media experiences, and to reinforce that nothing can compare to an actual interaction with another human being.

For an easy guide on the use of technology for children birth thru school-age, check out the resource from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

To learn more about the use of technology in young children check out the additional articles listed below.

A Silicon Valley School that Doesn’t Compute

Harvard- Graduate School of Education: Can Tablets Transform Teaching?

Independent: Does Spending Too Much Time on Smartphones and Tablets Damage Kids Development?

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