If there was a parenting handbook, it would be one page long and read, “there is no parenting handbook.” Asking advice — from friends, doctors, grandparents, and others — is often complicated because every family is unique. But there is some literature that can guide us. Dr. Chip Donohue’s 2012 paper, “Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8”, offers a wealth of information on interactive media, screen time, and digital literacy that is as relevant today as the day it was published.
New tech is not unique to this generation
Dr. Donohue opens by reminding readers that this isn’t the first time new technology has been introduced to society:
Television was once the newest technology in our homes, and then came videos and computers. Today’s children are growing up in a rapidly changing digital age that is far different from that of their parents and grandparents.Dr. Chip Donahue
Smartphones and tablets are just the latest technology available to children and youth, but the concerns parents grapple with today are nothing new. TV, video games, and computers have all spurred conversations about childhood development and behavioral issues — and previous generations have turned out just fine.
The impact of technology is still largely unknown
Another major takeaway from Dr. Donohue’s report: “There is conflicting evidence on the value of technology in children’s development”. Unfortunately, this statement still holds true today. Like trying to determine which fad diet will yield the best results, searching Google for appropriate screen time recommendations can be downright confusing. Some experts, like Dr. Jean Twenge strongly argue that exposure to technology and social media is to blame for recent spikes in anxiety, depression, and suicide among teens; others argue that while correlation does exist, there is a lack of empirical evidence to draw strong conclusions.
The good news it that, as a result of knowing our children are using devices at younger ages, more people are researching its impacts. In the meantime, we can continue to educate ourselves and make informed choices for our families.
Not all screen time is created equal
Dr. Donohue also recognizes that devices can be a positive force in our lives: “When used wisely, technology and media can support learning and relationships,” he writes. “Enjoyable and engaging shared experiences that optimize the potential for children’s learning and development can support children’s relationships with both adults and their peers.
Though the world may be very different than it was in 2012 — long before the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal raised concerns over data collection and privacy — I’m optimistic that this still holds true. We can’t paint all screen time with the same brush, but we can manage the type of screen time our kids have access to.
With my family, I break things down between screen time and screen captured time (when our behavior is being tracked and algorithms are working to get or keep us on a certain platform). To me, monitoring what content my kids engage with online is more important than counting hours and minutes — though we do have limits in our house.
Dr. Chip Donohue’s screen time recommendations
At the end of his report, Dr. Donohue lists what early childhood educators can do to ensure that kids can benefit from technology — but parents and other adults can also use some of these suggestions while navigating screen time with their kids:
Select technology based on the quality and appropriateness of its content Balance tech usage with other activities, like getting outdoors Avoid letting children indulge in passive use of TV, videos, and other media Use technology primarily as a means of supporting interactions that strengthen the relationships between adults and children
“Young children need tools that help them explore, create, problem solve, consider, think…make decisions, observe, document, research…take turns, and learn with and from one another,” writes Dr. Donohue. It makes sense then, that he doesn’t suggest that adults completely remove technology from the picture. Instead, he makes it clear that it’s everyone’s responsibility to help children use technology in ways that are both safe and fun. If we take the time to support our kids’ online activity — by meaningfully engaging with and empowering them — there’s really no reason to prevent them from experiencing all that technology has to offer.
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