Digital technology is an integral part of our lives, and it could be argued that we are doing children a disservice to deny them the unique teaching opportunities it affords.
The Explanatory notes for General comment No. 25 (2021) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment state that: "As digital technologies impact children's lives in ever-increasing ways, it is vital to consider the full spectrum of children's rights against the full range of the impacts of digital technology, both now and into the future" (5Rights Foundation, March 2021, p.2).
A new article from Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child (CEDC) titled "Technology as the Beach—how a new way of thinking about children's use of technologies may lead to better outcomes for children", suggests that we should think of the use of digital technology "in the same way we think about helping children to enjoy the beach". The article's authors argue that we should instead consider what each activity affords children as opportunities for their development.
Professor Leon Straker, Chief Investigator at the CEDC and co-author of the article, says, "To highlight to educators and parents that there are ways technology can be used to enhance children's lives rather than just be a bad influence is a really useful and helpful thing for our community."
"The beach analogy is helpful because nobody will win the for/against debate," says Professor Straker. "We don't say, 'I'm not going to take my kid to the beach because the beach is bad'. Instead, we go because it affords some good things."
Professor Straker notes that many guidelines have historically focused on reducing the amount of time children spend with technology, positioning it as a “toxin” or banning technology altogether, rather than providing a healthy way to approach it.
“Society expects us to be able to teach children to be competent users of technology in order to be productive members of society,” says Straker. “Parents and professionals are receiving conflicting messages from health advisors, government departments and other organisations and that makes it really hard to make educated choices.”
“When you think about the beach it's actually a really dangerous place for young children; they could drown or get knocked over by a wave and become a quadriplegic, they could get attacked by a shark or develop cancer in later life. However, it would seem extreme of us to ban children from going to the beach because the beach provides lots of positive opportunities for young children. It’s a place for them to have fun and be physically active. They can relax and socialise with their family and friends and learn about nature. So, rather than banning children from the beach we put in a series of support layers to make it a safe place for children to grow and develop. We teach children how to swim, how to watch out for waves and rips and how to apply sun block. We ensure that they have adult supervision.”
Professor Straker points out that it’s this gradual expansion of knowledge and understanding that ensures that when a teenager goes to the beach with their friends, we know that they can be safe because we've supervised them to develop the skills to be independent.
“Minimising the risks associated with digital technology can be addressed in the same way as being at the beach. Researchers should be providing parents and professionals working with young families with more information along these lines.”
A new approach to research
According to Professor Straker, there needs to be focus on new types of research that aim to determine which technologies are good for families and carers and which technologies should be minimised or avoided, rather than just telling people how much time should be spent on technology all together.
“We need to be doing studies where we put sensors on children and get them to interact with technology and see how much their muscles are working, how much they're moving and what their postures are. We need to be doing experiments in family homes where we control the technology that families use and we can see what effect that has on the child's development and their health outcomes. We also need to be doing surveys where parents or children of an appropriate age tell us what technology they are using and why they are using it and look at the patterns.”
Professor Straker shares that the CEDC has now been granted funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council in WA and from the Australian Research Council to employ these different types of research to try to build more evidence for families and professionals about how children can gain the benefits of technology whilst minimising the risks. This will provide adults with more useful tools to show children where to swim between the flags when using technology, how to prevent harm by applying protective safeguards and how to raise their hand for help when they’re stuck in a digital rip.
Technology as a vehicle for physical activities and social interactions
Professor Straker and his colleagues are only in the formative stages of undertaking this new research however, there are already frameworks that can be accessed to guide children’s relationship with technology. Straker was one of the co-authors of ECA's Statement on young children and digital technologies (2018), which was launched at the 2018 ECA National Conference.
The statement sits within the context of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and ECA's Code of Ethics. These documents provide a rights-based perspective for thinking about young children and digital technologies.
The statement provides an overview of existing research about young children and digital technologies in four known areas of importance in early childhood education.
2. health and well-being
4. play and pedagogy.
The statement gives practical advice around how digital technology can be engaged to support the development of children in each of the four areas.
"Helping children and the people responsible for children understand the ways to use technology in helpful ways is important," says Professor Straker, "A new idea for parents and educators to think about is how to use digital technology as a stimulant for physical and creative activities."
Many services are already embracing this approach. Children at North Bondi's Uniting Early Learning use an interactive whiteboard device called the Prowise on a regular basis.
"We use the Prowise to enhance our program," says Director Nicole Johnson. "Children research projects, share photos and videos from special events and occasionally engage in zoom calls with children who may be overseas or isolating due to COVID. In addition, we will occasionally use the Prowise for educational apps and games which have been planned for within our program."
Nicole says that using digital technology in the program benefits the children by allowing them to connect to the world, research and learn together, and connect with friends who are isolating or who have gone to live/visit overseas.
Uniting Early Learning North Bondi's philosophy on using digital technology is that it is only to be used for educational purposes and when it can enhance the existing program. They follow the guidelines presented in the Healthy Kids Australia physical activity and sedentary guidelines.
"We use technology to promote social interaction between children, peers and adults," says Nicole. "We do not use the Prowise for practices such as watching movies, TV shows or YouTube videos. When using educational apps, this is always supervised; children are asked to take turns and not be engaged with the apps for a long time. These games encourage children to co-learn, interact, share and participate in turn-taking. Uniting has an information technology procedure and policy for early learning which we follow."
Setting up the flags and applying protection as we move towards a bright new relationship with digital technology
Rather than thinking of technology as TV-like sedentary consumption, parents and educators are now being invited to think of how digital activities can be safely approached, like a trip to the beach.
- How can we set up the flags?
- What protective elements need to be applied and which situations need to be avoided?
- How can we make it healthy and interactive?
"Giving children and the people responsible for children the support to use technology in helpful ways is important," says Professor Straker, "A new idea for parents and educators to think about is how to use digital technology as a stimulant for physical and creative activities."
Educators are strongly encouraged to read the ECA statement on young people and digital technologies and become familiar with the four elements of children's needs around education in the digital space. Training is also available with many of the digital devices and programs available.
Professor Straker and his colleagues are currently working with ABC Kids, the Raising Children Network and Play Group WA to develop resources that show families and carers how to encourage physical activity while engaging with digital technology. They are also looking at ways to help children develop self-management skills so that they can better transition away from technology to other activities.
Edwards, S and Straker L, et al. (3 June, 2022) "Technology as the Beach—how a new way of thinking about children’s use of digital technologies may lead to better outcomes for children", Centre of Excellence for the Digtital Child.
5Rights Steering Group (March 2021), "General comment no. 25 (2021) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment—Explanatory notes", 5Rights Foundation.
Edwards, S and Straker L, et al. (September 2018) "Statement on young children and digital technologies", Early Childhood Australia.
Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care (May 2021) "Physical activity and exercise guidelines for all Australians", Department of Health and Aged Care.
Straker, L, et al. (3 June 2022) "Technology as the Beach", Centre of Excellence for the Digtital Child.
McClymont, J (March 2020) "Screens vs nature—can they co-exist?", Rattler, Issue 130, Community Early Learning Australia, p 38.
Anastasi, M (1 July 2022) "Opinion: Is it time to re-assess our relationship with digital documentation?", Amplify!, Community Early Learning Australia
Limb, M (15 Nov, 2021) "How four little cameras helped facilitate greater connections with children and families", Amplify!, Community Early Learning Australia