It is a question almost every parent will ask themselves – should children be using digital devices during preschool years? If so, how and when should young children use technology?
Information currently available to parents on this topic provides mixed messages. On one hand, there is research that shows interactions with technology can support learning – by extending knowledge and understanding of the world, building cognitive skills, and developing important dispositions for learning, such as curiosity and motivation.
Other research studies link screen time with obesity, technology addiction, sleep irregularities, behaviour difficulties, and a variety of other health risks. There is also a concern that screen media might be harmful to children’s developing attention, impulse- control, and self-regulation; all which could diminish learning.
Watching preschoolers paint, listen to music, or create their own virtual story puppet show with a tap and a swipe is a clear testimony of the positive, educational, and valuable impact that technology may have on learning. On the other hand, seeing parents who have to give their child a smartphone or tablet to calm him down each time they are having a tantrum makes us wonder about the potential long-term negative impact on children’s health, development, and learning.
In our work at CanLearn with parents of young children, we encourage parents to think critically about the role of technology in the development of their child. We ask parents to evaluate the pros and cons of screen media for very young children, keeping in mind the 4 M’s of screen time recommended by the Canadian Paediatric Society (2017):
Until we know more about the long-term effects of exposure to technology on the developing brain, it is a good idea to minimize it. Babies and toddlers under age two should be discouraged from using any screens at all. One to two hours/day is a recommended limit for older preschoolers with a caveat of turning off all screens one hour before bed.
Parent-child joint engagement is very important for mitigating screen time. Young children should not be passively placed in front of the screens. E-books, apps, videos, and podcasts should be tools for encouraging parent-child interactions. Screen time should ALWAYS be used “with” traditional play activities and never “instead of.”
To be mindful of screen time, parents should turn off all screens when not in use to avoid background noise. There is research evidence that background noise negatively impacts children’s attention (they stay less focused on their toys) and expressive language (they talk less, using simpler and briefer utterances.) Parents always need to keep in mind that young children learn best through play. The best thing parents can do for their young children is to talk to them, read to them, play with them, and provide them with opportunities to explore their surroundings.
Young children mimic behaviours of parents, so parents should also be aware of how their own use of technology influences their children. Parents should make sure to turn off their own digital devices during family time, such as dinner or playing outside together.
E-books, apps, videos, tablets, and smartphones are simply tools. The potential of these tools for the children using them lies in the hands of the adults. It is the adult who chooses how and when a child is to use them.
Don’t feel guilty for letting your child watch a YouTube video so that you can take a shower; however, practice moderation. Keep things in balance and think about digital activities that you and your child can enjoy TOGETHER!
… and always remember that technology-based experiences will never replace playing in the mud, building with blocks or playing house!