This summer, the Hunt Institute hosted a panel discussion on the risks and opportunities that technology presents in the lives of young children. Experts shared their insights on how caregivers can best approach digital media consumption and tools for children in an increasingly digital world.
Here are our top five takeaways:
1. We all rely on screens. For better and worse, “People use screens because it’s an easy way to keep kids occupied and safe when they need to get other things done,” Dr. Deborah Rosenfeld of the Education Development Center explained. Speaking from personal experience, she emphasized that this “is not a unique problem of income that leads to people using screens as babysitters.”
While technology became ubiquitous during the Covid pandemic, using digital media to distract and entertain young children is not ideal, especially if it interferes with play and learning opportunities.
2. Consider the timing and type of digital media exposure. Kris Perry, executive director of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, said, “For all young children, high amounts of screentime, especially without adult guidance or as a passive pursuit, is unambiguously detrimental to their learning and development. It’s not until the second year of life that there is any evidence that children benefit from media for learning, and even that requires direct facilitation and reteaching from an adult.”
Fundamental skills and abilities develop during early childhood. Greater screen time in infancy, Perry said, can lead to lower attention and executive function at nine years old.” Research shows physical and social-emotional impacts as well.
3. Technology should not displace playful learning. Screentime correlates with poorer social and language development. “We came into being with optimization for being around other people and with this physical world,” explained Dr. Victor Lee of Stanford University’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching. “Our hardware is best treated and fine-tuned within that space.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children ages one to five get at least 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, and panelists agree that screen time should not interfere. “Screentime displacement for peer play relates to worse fine and gross motor skills for one- to three-year-olds,” Perry said, endorsing the AAP guidelines.
4. High-quality educational digital resources are scarce. Parents and caregivers must use caution in the media that children consume. Dr. Lee compared the prevalence of new technology to the processed food revolution, which made cheap, easily distributed foods widely available. “It doesn’t mean that it is as healthy, desirable or should be replacing what we have elsewhere,” he argued.
Even with high-quality digital-based content, Dr. Lee said, “It is not there to, nor is it ever going to be capable of replacing what humans do, especially concerning how we support the development, growth and autonomy of our kids.”
5. Synchronous learning and healthy modeling should be prioritized. “Synchronicity is a caregiver sitting beside a child watching a show, playing a game,” Dr. Rosenfeld explained. That is not the typical situation. She suggests incorporating methods to mediate learning, like discussing key concepts, ideas and character interactions, which are critical when incorporating digital media and resources asynchronously.
Perry stressed that caregivers should “remember what the long-term effects are on children, not only directly when they’re on devices, but watching adults be on devices are also interrupting their opportunities to develop.”
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.