Touchscreen devices are becoming more prevalent in everyday life. They feature as a key tool for daily tasks and entertainment for most adults and children. They are especially easy for young children to use, resulting in increased engagement and broader scope for digital play (Lowrie & Larkin, 2020). In fact, it is common for children to begin engagement with touchscreen devices and apps before they are six months old (Danby et al., 2018), and reports from the eSafety Commissioner indicate that 94% of Australian children are actively accessing the internet before the age of four.
This increasing use of screen-based devices by young children is a familiar site, but it’s something people often have a strong opinion on. Concern around this is at the forefront of many people’s minds. Educators often hear this anecdotally in conversations with families and in the media. A recent report from the Gonski Institute found that 83% of parents think digital devices have a negative effect on children. However, for many children, using touchscreen devices is not separate from learning or play (Sulaymani et al., 2018), it’s just a normal part of everyday life.
This is where the disconnect lies between how children experience digital technology and how families or other members of the community react to its use. In particular, people often report feeling uneasy about the difficulty that young children have disengaging from screens. However, this deep engagement is not unique to digital technology. It is also common for young children to become heavily involved in their play and other experiences, and it can be difficult for them to transition to new activities (Doyle, 2020).
Immersion is a key characteristic of play, but what does this mean when screens are involved?
The Statement on Young Children and Digital Technologies (ECA, 2018) reinforces that access to digital technologies is more than an option. It is a right for young children and a key aspect of effective citizenship. However, technology is often seen as being at odds with play-based learning (Johnston et al., 2018) and while there is a need to temper moral panic responses, we also need to ensure that digital technologies used by young children evolve in ethical ways that enrich their lives. Initiatives such as the Play IT Safe professional learning project are part of an emerging awareness of the need to support children’s agency in digital spaces. So, what else is needed? Understanding views about technologies to help chart the way forward.
Through a short online survey, researchers at Macquarie University are currently looking to capture the perspectives and experiences of people who have young children in their lives. The research team aims to explore what people think about screen-based play for infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children; why it often makes people feel concerned; and how it differs from non-digital play.
The research being undertaken would help build an understanding of family, educator and community perspectives and values related to play, learning and technology—for example, by gauging if engagement in play with Lego blocks is seen more favourably than virtual blocks in Minecraft, and, if so, for what reason. It would also build a greater understanding of what constitutes active and passive engagement with technology (NAEYC & Fred Rogers Foundation, 2012) so that parents, educators and communities can effectively support children as digital citizens and maintain digital wellbeing.
|Are you an educator, parent, family member or carer of a child under five years of age? Let the research team know what you think about young children’s use of touchscreen devices by answering a few short questions here.|
Dr Kelly Johnston is an Adjunct Fellow with the School of Education at Macquarie University. She specialises in young children’s experiences with digital technology, with a particular interest in digital citizenship and digital wellbeing.
Dr Luke Touhill has worked in early childhood education and care (ECEC) for over twenty years, as a teacher, director, manager, trainer and lecturer. He earned a PhD from Macquarie University through research that investigated the design of children’s services in Australia. He strongly believes that a well organised and well-resourced physical environment is a key factor in the quality of ECEC practice.
- Danby, S., Evaldsson, A., Melander, H., & Aarsand, P. (2018). Situated collaboration and problem solving in young children’s digital gameplay. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(5), 959–972.
- Doyle, S. (2020, November 12). Flow theory and wellbeing [Blog post]. The Spoke. http://thespoke.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/flow-theory-and-wellbeing/
- Early Childhood Australia (ECA). (2018). Statement on young children and digital technologies. ECA.
- Gonski Institute for Education. (2021). Growing up Digital in Australia Phase 2 Technical Report. HYPERLINK: https://www.gie.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/documents/GONS5000%20Growing%20Up%20Digital%20Report_FINAL.pdf
- Johnston, K., Highfield, K., & Hadley, F. (2018). Supporting young children as digital citizens: The importance of shared understandings of technology to support integration in play-based learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(5), 896–910.
- Lowrie, P., & Larkin, K. (2020). Experience, represent and apply (ERA): A heuristic for digital engagement in the early years. British Journal of Educational Technology, 51(1), 131–147.
- NAEYC & Fred Rogers Foundation. (2012). Technology and interactive media as tool in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/ps_technology.pdf.
- Sulaymani, O., Fleer, M., & Chapman, D. (2018). Understanding children’s motives when using iPads in Saudi classrooms: Is it for play or for learning? International Journal of Early Years Education, 26(4), 340–353.