Beyond Screen Time: Better Questions for Children and Technology in 2020

Opinion | Community

Beyond Screen Time: Better Questions for Children and Technology in 2020

By Chip Donohue     Dec 28, 2019

Beyond Screen Time: Better Questions for Children and Technology in 2020

This article is part of the guide: A Decade in Review: Reflections on 10 Years in Education Technology.

This op-ed is part of a series of reflections on the past decade in education technology. Chip Donohue is the founding director of the Technology in Early Child Center at Erikson Institute, and a senior fellow at the Fred Rogers Center.

As I reflect on the intersection of child development, early learning and technology over the past 10 years, I am reminded of a decade of polarizing arguments for and against young children using technology.

In particular, I remain discouraged by 10 years of continuing debates about screen time that miss the importance of content and context in determining what uses of technology are beneficial for young children. My work has focused on always putting the child before the technology, identifying what we have learned while acknowledging what we still need to understand, and balancing the benefits while embracing concerns about children’s health and well-being in the digital age.

In 2009, the iPhone was two years old, and we were beginning to explore the possibilities of the touch screen and video chat as engaging interfaces for young children. The release of the iPad in the following year put young children in control of their screen experience by simply clicking, tapping and swiping. Along the way we’ve seen a proliferation of children’s technology and media on adult tools, including apps for teaching, learning, communication, collaboration, connecting, and social-emotional learning.

It is important to note that none of these technologies were originally designed for young children. Yet all of them end up in very small hands very quickly. The digital environment adults are immersed in was not intended as a place for children, but children find their way there. Developers have been quick to create apps and content for the youngest users, adapt technology tools including video chat, tangible tech and voice-activated assistants, and develop pedagogical approaches for digital storytelling, STEM learning and coding.

But troubling gaps remain in the need for child-centered and developmentally-informed design and use.

As 2019 winds down, we are still in search of research and evidence-based practices to guide developers, educators and parents. Questions include: What do we know about developmentally informed benefits or harms to young children? How should 50 years of research about children’s television habits inform our understanding of how they use digital devices today? What are the implications of children using technology tools that were designed for adults? What does a safe digital environment fit for young children include? And, what more do we need to know about “digital well-being” to help young children and their families “live well with media?”

Here are a few of my takeaways about the most powerful ideas and transformational practices that have emerged during the past 10 years:

  • Old theory informs the use of new tools. The work of Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, B.F. Skinner, Seymour Papert and Howard Gardner, remind us that even as the tools, technologies and context changes rapidly, child development remains constant.
  • Relationships matter most. Fred Rogers taught us that it is not about the technology, it’s about relationships. Educators and parents can select and use interactive media that invites and encourages interactions with others, promotes social emotional learning, enables co-viewing and joint engagement.
  • Early childhood “essentials” are always essential. Play, open-ended materials and manipulatives, large motor activities, time outdoors and social interactions are just as important in the digital age as ever. Educators and parents can avoid displacing or replacing essential early childhood experiences with screen-based technologies. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
  • Proper pedagogy complements technology tools. Young children need support to become makers, media creators and digital storytellers, STEM learners, computational thinking and coders.
  • Technology-mediated family engagement and nudges work. Use tools to enhance family engagement and relationships, help families keep in touch at a distance and strengthen parent-child interactions.

As we look to 2020, here are eight areas that warrant further attention:

  1. Inform the research agenda based on emerging and promising practices to describe what educators need to know and be able to do;
  2. Develop evidence-based classroom practices for new technologies and pedagogies including AI, VR, voice activated tool, coding and computational thinking;
  3. Establish high standards for ethical design that is more developmentally-informed and child-centered, and eliminate manipulative data collection practices, persuasive design and behavioral and contextual advertising to children;
  4. Address equity and diversity including issues of access and the digital use divide;
  5. Focus on children’s rights in the digital environment;
  6. Promote digital citizenship for adults and children including cyber safety, online privacy and positive contributions;
  7. Empower grownups to be media mentors through conscious self-reflection of our own digital media behaviors, including those that distract us from being present;
  8. Improve teacher preparation and parent development for more intentional and appropriate use in classrooms and homes.

The past ten years have seen rapid development and deployment of technology and digital media aimed at young children, as well as tools meant for adults that have become part of young children’s daily life. But in the end, it’s not the technology but what young children do with it that matters most.

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