Today young children are using technology, in particular interactive and mobile media, on a daily basis. This use happens at the same time as critical brain development, the establishment of healthy behaviours and relationship building in young children. Up to the age of 2, all children need hands-on exploration and social interaction to develop cognitive, language, motor and social-emotional skills. Evidence shows that 2 year olds can learn words from using technology for things like live video-chatting with adults (for example grandparents), and from interactive touchscreen interfaces. However it is also crucial that parents are involved with their children while they are using digital media.
With older children aged 3-5, well designed TV programmes and apps can improve cognitive, literacy and social outcomes for students. The real issue here is that many apps labelled "educational" are not designed by educators and have very little impact on development. In particular interactive digital books may be distracting and can actually decrease child comprehension of content, or parent interaction while reading.
There are also some health concerns - for example heavy media use during pre-school is associated with increases in BMI - much of this connected to watching TV while eating and being exposed to food advertising. The presence of a TV, computer or mobile device in the bedroom is associated with less sleep at night, and even the exposure to screens in the evening leads to shorter night-time sleep. The excessive viewing of TV in early childhood can lead to cognitive, language and social/emotional delays. It was observed that when a TV is on there is decreased parent-child interaction. Parents are advised that switching from violent content to educational content results in significant improvement in behaviour - particularly for low-income boys. Sadly, the data shows that excessive TV viewing is more likely in infants and toddlers with difficult temperaments - and these are the children who are most likely to be given mobile devices to "calm them down".
Parents also need to be aware that their TV viewing distracts from parent-child interactions and child play. Also parental use of mobile devices is associated with fewer verbal and non-verbal interactions between parents and children.
Advice for families
- Avoid using digital media, except video chatting, with children younger than 18-24 months and for children aged 2-5, limit screen time to 1 hour per day.
- Use media together with your child.
- Turn off TVs and other devices when not in use.
- Avoid using media as a way to calm children - this can lead to problems with limit-setting or with the inability of children to develop their own emotional regulation.
- Monitor the media content of the apps - test them before your child uses them. Play together and talk to your child about the app.
- Keep bedrooms, meal-times and parent-child playtimes screen free.
- No screens for 1 hour before bedtime.