There has been considerable research in the field of children’s media use, but relatively new platforms and fast adoption rates mean that research needs time to catch up. Case in point: Apple launched the first iPad in 2010, and today, 40 percent of families with children under eight own a tablet. According to Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, we don’t know a lot about relationships between children’s brain development and digital platforms, but we are making some headway in this realm.
Increased media exposure has been linked to health problems such as child obesity and sleep disturbances. Studies show that even background TV (television not meant for children but still on) can noticeably change how children play–decreasing their attention span with each toy and even how long they play. Background TV also can affect parents’ interactions with their children, reducing the quality and amount of time they spend with their child.
Dr. Truglio highlighted apps that can help children learn. With Sesame Street’s new vocabulary building app, Big Bird’s Words, children hunt for words in the real world, using the phone; in other words, children use technology as a tool to engage with the real world. A large study in Idaho Head Start programs showed significant increases in children’s ability to identify the words and explain their meaning after using the app. Apps like this can address issues like the word gap–-a term used to describe the large difference in the number of words a child is exposed to based on socio-economic status. The benefits of technology use are not limited to curriculum. Carnegie Mellon’s Message from Me uses video footage to help parents and children connect by showing parents what activities their child is doing in their day care/early learning center.
The amount of time a child spends in front of screen media is only part of the discussion. Parents are caught between how industry markets the role of technology in learning, and fear-based messages, which can leave parents confused and alarmed. As an alternative, Ms. Guernsey suggests using three C’sto guide discussions about technology use: content, context, and your child as an individual. Taking these three C’s into account gives adults the flexibility to determine what is best for each child.
Rather than blaming and shaming parents, researchers and educators should look further into questions of how best to guide parents and caregivers in the use of digital media by children. With more than 75,000 “education apps” for the iPad alone, there’s clearly need for greater guidance. Child care providers also need more opportunities for professional development in this area. And, the tech industry should be more mindful about engaging child development experts, particularly those with experience specific to the age group they target, to support the development of apps and provide information to parents.
Here are some resources the speakers suggested: the NAEYC position statement on technology and children, Common Sense Media, the Fred Rogers Center, PBS Parents, and Little eLit. Guernsey also highlighted the books Digital Decisions: Choosing the Right Technology Tools for Early Childhood Education by Fran Simon and Karen Nemouth, and Teaching in a Digital Age: Smart Tools for Age 3 to Grade 3 by Brian Peurling, as helpful guides for early childhood media exposure. If you are interested in the ways digital tools can promote early literacy, check out New America EdCentral’s recently released “Seeding Reading,” a collection of articles and analyses on reading in the “digital age.”