Tips for parents of young children using digital technology

The news this week has many people worried about children’s ‘screen time’. Are babies overexposed to smartphones, tablets and laptops? As DR KATE HIGHFIELD writes, Early Childhood Australia finds that ‘banning these technologies doesn’t work. Instead we need to look at how children use technology, focusing on the idea of using it well and carefully and sharing children’s experiences. 

We put together an expert group lead by Professors Susan Edwards and Leon Straker to sift through the research and explore how educators and others can manage the risks while responding to the reality of the digital world that today’s children are born into. In 2018 ECA launched a Statement on young children and digital technologies. Today, we’ve put together some tips for families drawn from this Statement, to help us all navigate parenting in the digital age: 

(You can read the full Statement here.)


1. Set a good example by limiting your own screen time—put your device down to give your attention to children when they ask for it. Phones and tablets are more attractive to children when they see adults using them all the time.  If you can model the importance of giving someone your full attention and putting the phone away to engage in conversation, that will help children learn to regulate their own technology use.

2. Use the device togetheravoid going solo. Encourage young children to share the screen with you or another child (or screencast on a bigger screen). Using technology together or in a way that encourages communication and collaboration is better than children passively watching content.  Ideally you would have very young children on your lap while they use the technology so you can talk to them and engage in the activity together just as you would do reading a book. Even if you are using technology to keep a child busy while you shop or cook dinner, you can still use it together—singing a song together, play a talking book and follow along. Act out some of the scenes of the story or ask the child to tick things off a shopping list.  

3. Teach children to use apps that support creativity, movement and physical activityshow them how to play a favourite song, bust out some dance moves, solve a puzzle, use the magnifier or snap images. Activities which promote movement, interaction, learning and decision-making are better for children’s cognitive and physical development than watching videos, or playing repetitive games. Here, we suggest using technology to create and communicate rather than to consume.

4. Break up screen time into short bursts of 10-20 minuteshelp children learn to put devices down and do something else after a short time. Explain to children that it’s not good for their body (particularly posture and eyesight) to look at a screen for too long. It might help to use a timer or have another favourite activity to move on to next.

5. Make sure the technology is safe for children to use—avoid games or media with advertising, turn on parental controls, check voice-activated software, take care with internet-connected toys and devices and use other safety strategies to keep children safe from adult content or games that mimic gambling behaviours. Stay nearby as they play, learn and work with technology and talk to them about what they are doing.

Lastly, parents are best placed to identify what is in their child’s interests. If you need 30 mins to cook a nutritious meal, don’t feel guilty for giving your child a technology activity that will allow you to take that time.  But remember that you are in control of what the child does when they are using technology—you can put limits on both the nature of the activity (eg talking book or playing music) and time they have on the device.  As adults we are the driver of children’s experiences with technology and so we need to remember to keep hold of the steering wheel.  

Early Childhood Australia, asked a panel of experts to develop a Statement on Young Children and Digital Technologies which was released last year.  While this Statement was developed for educators and teachers working in early education, it has information, evidence and guidance that parents may also find useful, see it here. The e-safety commissioner has a lot of resources on cyber safety, click here for how to use parental controls and other tools. Alannah and Madeline Foundation eSmart’s initiative helps schools to manage online risk and cyber bullying. For information on screen use as part of a healthy family lifestyle see the Raising Children Network website.

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Exploring key issues in early childhood technology 
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Covering the most important topics related to technology and media use in the early years, this powerful resource, by international experts share their wealth of experience and unpack complex issues into a collection of accessibly written essays. This text is specifically geared towards practitioners looking for actionable information on screen time, cybersafety, makerspaces, coding, computational thinking, STEM, AI and other core issues related to technology and young children in educational settings. You can purchase your copy here on the ECA Shop.


Kate Highfield

Dr Kate Highfield is an experienced teacher, teacher educator and researcher, working at Australian Catholic University, based in Canberra. Kate has spent over twenty five years working as a classroom teacher and as a teacher educator and researcher. Kate’s work (supported by a range of grants and partnership projects) explores effective technology integration, with a focus on potential impacts on learning (for adults and children), pedagogy and play. This work specifically focusses on the use of technology in Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).

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