Finding a balance: Technology and early childhood

In a changing world, common sense technology guidelines have moved beyond “just turn it off.”

By approaching media thoughtfully and proactively, parents and educators can ensure media time is safe and educational.
By approaching media thoughtfully and proactively, parents and educators can ensure media time is safe and educational.

Many parents are aware that the American Academy of Pediatrics have long recommended no screen time for children under 2 and no more than two hours a day for children over 2. However, the reality of what is happening in people’s homes has not meshed with these recommendations. A recent study by Common Sense Media found that the average infant or toddler under age 2 was engaging in 58 minutes a day of screen time, and children from 2-4 were spending 1 hour and 58 minutes with screens.

Not too many years ago, we talked about “TV time” instead of “screen time.” The type of media children are accessing is changing rapidly. In 2011, Common Sense Media found that just 8 percent of homes had an iPad or tablet, but by 2013 that had risen to 40 percent. What’s more, they also found in 2013 that over 75 percent of children ages 0-8 have daily access to a mobile media device such as a smart phone. However, the current American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations were established in 1999, eight years before the release of the iPhone in 2007. This October, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced they would be releasing updated guidelines for the use of media with young children in 2016. Our world is rapidly changing; media consumption has changed, and most parents see the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations as being outdated and impractical.

In response to that, the American Academy of Pediatrics convened a symposium in May 2015 titled “Growing Up Digital: Media Research Symposium.” They brought together leading social science, neuroscience and media researchers, educators, pediatricians and representatives from key partner organizations. The group had three main objectives: evaluate available data, identify research gaps and consider how to provide thoughtful, practical advice to parents based on the evidence. As Ari Brown, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in regards to the need to update his agencies screen time recommendations, “Look at our world. It has changed…and so we have to approach the world as it is and figure out ways to make it work.” Parents are in need of more guidance on how to navigate parenting in the digital age, beyond just being told to “turn it off.”

The following key messages emerged from the American Academy of Pediatrics symposium, “Beyond ‘turn it off’: How to advise families on media use:”

  • Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually. Like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects.
  • Parenting has not changed. The same parenting rules apply to your children’s real and virtual environments. Play with them. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Teach kindness. Be involved. Know their friends and where they are going with them.
  • Role modeling is critical. Limit your own media use, and model online etiquette. Attentive parenting requires face time away from screens.
  • We learn from each other. Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best via two-way communication. “Talk time” between caregiver and child remains critical for language development. Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers. The more media engender live interactions, the more educational value they may hold (for example, a toddler chatting by video with a parent who is traveling). Optimal educational media opportunities begin after age 2, when media may play a role in bridging the learning achievement gap.
  • Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends their time rather than just setting a timer.
  • Curation helps. More than 80,000 apps are labeled as educational, but little research validates their quality (Hirsh-Pasek KPsych Science2015; 16:3-34). An interactive product requires more than “pushing and swiping” to teach. Look to organizations like Common Sense Media that review age-appropriate apps, games and programs.
  • Co-engagement counts. Family participation with media facilitates social interactions and learning. Play a video game with your kids. Your perspective influences how your children understand their media experience. For infants and toddlers, co-viewing is essential.
  • Playtime is important. Unstructured playtime stimulates creativity. Prioritize daily unplugged playtime, especially for the very young.
  • Set limits. Technology use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Does your child’s technology use help or hinder participation in other activities?
  • It’s OK for your teen to be online. Online relationships are integral to adolescent development. Social media can support identity formation. Teach your teen appropriate behaviors that apply in both the real and online worlds. Ask teens to demonstrate what they are doing online to help you understand content and context.
  • Create technology-free zones. Preserve family mealtime. Recharge devices overnight outside your child’s bedroom. These actions encourage family time, healthier eating habits and healthier sleep.
  • Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. These can be teachable moments if handled with empathy. Certain aberrations, however, such as sexting or posting self-harm images, signal a need to assess youths for other risk-taking behaviors.

As was noted by the symposium speakers, every media interaction is an opportunity and a possible teachable moment. Parents need to stay present and involved in their children’s media interaction, and be good role models. Educators can play a key role in teaching media literacy and can guide students to appropriate, positive and safe ways to utilize digital resources.

Our world has changed, and will continue to change. By approaching media thoughtfully and proactively, parents and educators can ensure media time is safe and educational. Join Michigan State University Extension’s early childhood development educators for a discussion about Finding the Balance: Technology and Early Childhood on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2015 at 1 p.m. For more information about early childhood education and other topics, visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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