Jüngere Kinder, ihre Eltern und digitale Technik: Wie nutzen Kinder Bildschirme?


    The use of digital technologies and access to the internet of children has been changing. Kids are getting access to the internet younger and younger, and most children have an online presence, either by themselves or through their parents. The digital use of teenagers is well known, but the same cannot be said of children under the age of 9. In the context of access to the internet, young children’s lack of agency and technical, critical and social skills may pose increasing challenges to them growing happily and responsibly within the digital world.

    This study, by the EU’s Joint Research Center (JRC), has looked at the digital technology use of kids in 21 countries across Europe by interviewing 234 families. The results show the patterns of use by children but also the attitude of parents towards that use by their children. These interviews were conducted between 2014 and 2017 with families of diverse cultural and socio-economic background.

    How do young children interact today with digital technologies?

      Young children develop digital skills at home, mostly through the observation and mirroring or parents and older siblings. They perceive digital technologies as toys or activities among others that they use seamlessly with traditional toys. They follow their interests and needs using trial and error, which might entail some risks. Young children generally have a varied and balanced life integrating a range of activities, and digital activities are only one element. The main element that emerges from this research, is that European children are developing digital skills from a very young age, mostly in the home context. They are daily consumers of digital content and games, from TVs and streaming services to smartphones, tablets and game consoles. Dedicated learning apps, whose declared aims are to foster reading, writing, numeracy, or logical activities are rarely used or mentioned by children spontaneously, unless the apps are chosen by parents or are used either because their parents chose such apps for them or because they used them at school.

      Most popular are small screens like phones and tablets that allow mobility and have 24/7 availability, ownership and autonomy of choice and use. It seems that most very young children have their first contact with games occasionally through their parents’ smartphones or tablets in situations where parents use the natural attraction of children for those activities in time and places where they need their children to be calm and safely occupied.

      Children thus have their first contact with digital technologies and screens at a very early age (below 2), usually through their parents’ devices, which are not tailored for them in the first place. The analysis of the data of this study suggests that early years of childhood are key in developing children’s digital competences and agency, and in building healthy and balanced attitudes towards the digital realm.

      They learn very quickly and are able to navigate around their shortcomings, not the least of which is the inability to read and write. They are often more knowledgeable than their parents realise. They build their digital skills and competences mainly individually and autonomously in the home context, mirroring the behaviour of adults or older siblings and influenced by the type of digital devices and content they have access to, their own interests and needs and the level and typology of support and engagement they can benefit from their parents. Their individual interests, often clearly differentiated between genders for younger children, drive their choice of a particular video or game but also the kind of digital competences they develop. Their digital activities nourish their traditional offline play and are often embedded in it.

      What are the digital technologies used by young children?

        Children’s use of digital devices often depends on the availability of alternatives. For example, several children indicated that they preferred regular play rather than using new technologies such as tablets, but would use those new technologies when their preferred options for spending time were unavailable. The nuances in their discourses challenge the socially extended discourse that children are “absorbed’ or ‘alienated’ by technology devices. On the contrary, children have clear ideas regarding the purpose for which they want the devices and which devices can help them develop their personal interests.

        Television is still at the centre of children favourite activities and the most common screen present in all interviewed families.

        Tablets are becoming the most popular devices among young children for watching online-videos and gaming mainly but also drawing, listening to music, searching for information. The size of its screen, its portability and its ease of use thanks to the touchscreen technology are the main assets of this device for child use. It is increasingly adopted across countries as shared ‘family’ devices, sometimes as the individual property of the child.

        Smartphones can be considered as the universal device thanks to their relatively cheap cost, but they are generally considered by parents as their personal property and not always available to children, sometime turning it into an ‘SOS’ device helping to manage difficult parenting situations.

        Game consoles, laptops and computers might also be present in the household. Their use is more limited and is regulated with parental permission, especially when used for gaming activities. Laptops and PC’s are most commonly considered the property of the parents - often linked with professional activities - and difficult to operate by children. They are rarely used by young children unless PC or laptop provides the only digital technology accessible in the household. Older children of our sample use them more often together with their parents as support for their homework, especially if requested by the school.

        Young children use these digital technologies for four main purposes:

        1. Leisure and entertainment: mainly videos and games. For them it’s the easiest anti-boredom solution;
        2. Information and learning: for school work, but also for their own interests. This use is more frequent if parents and schools encourage it;
        3. Creation: drawing, video, photography, etc;
        4. Communication: A minority of interviewed children, around age 6, are already social networkers. Some are accompanied and monitored by their parents, but others are left free to explore, despite the risks and possible pitfalls.

        Their preferences and rankings are based on particular criteria such as the degree to which they can access and use a device with relative autonomy or the type and number of applications a device contains. It is important to note that the function and the possible activities offered by the device, seem more important than the device itself, even though children express naturally their preference for portable and touch screen device when they can access one. Sharing devices that are not configured for young children use in the first place increases risks of problematic experiences with pop ups and in-app purchases by children.

        For example, many of those young children use, especially on their parents’ suggestion, apps for drawings and painting and learn how to save creations of which they are proud. It is interesting to note that this activity seems more popular among children aged between 4 and 5 than between 6 and 7 years old. Some children in the latter age group reported that they used to draw and paint with the tablet but not anymore.

        An important point to be underlined is that if some children show the capacity to auto-regulate their use of digital technologies, most of them expressed the will to use them more if allowed to. A few children present signs of overuse of digital activities, mainly linked to video gaming and only boys in this study sample. Their knowledge of the concept of ‘the internet’ is mainly focused on whether or not they have access to Wi-Fi and therefore whether they can use apps or watch videos they like.

        In the Bulgarian group of this study, six out of the ten interviewed children aged 6-7 had a Facebook profile that in most but not all cases the parents themselves had created, as they feared that their children would feel isolated without an account of their own. Other early social network adopters could be observed in countries such as the Netherlands.

        Finally, children might know how to use technology but lack more a precise representation of the digital world they are interacting with, with the consequence that they have little understanding of what the pitfalls might be and few safeguards against them.

        Do young children perceive the risks linked to digital applications?

          In general, young children are little aware of the risks associated with the use of digital technology. They are often more knowledgeable than their parents realize but they lack agency and clear representation of the tools they use daily such as the Internet, Wi-Fi or social networks. The limited access does not seem to be a concern for the children; this is just a condition that they accept.

          Young children talk about the risks only when explicitly asked and they mainly reproduce adults’ verbalisations on risks. Young children seem to internalise adults’ discourse and the views on risks and dangers that they have heard from their parents or other adults. Children across the sample at first often mentioned the risk of damaging their eyesight because of watching screens too much.

          Another risk commonly cited by children is that of encountering ‘silly’, violent or scary content while watching TV or video on demand or video gaming.

          How do parents see their children’s screen use?

            Parents develop their own mediation strategies that range from protection by limiting access to digital technology to warm support and co-usage. Their choices depend on their own perceptions, views and attitudes towards digital technology. Those in turn depend on their knowledge and experiences and on the level of penetration and acceptance of digital technology within the society in which they live, and of the social norms of the social groups they belong to. The notion that technology is the future and is unavoidable for the children dominates parents’ viewpoints.

            Meanwhile, the study shows that parental mediation strategies are mainly motivated by fears of possible negative effects on eyesight, concentration, cognitive capacities, social behaviour etc.; fears that children reflect in their own accounts. However, parents' fears match only partially the risks (exposure to inappropriate content (violence, sex, drugs, hate-speech, anorexia…), commercial requests, sharing of private and/or inappropriate content, difficulties to acquire auto-regulation, etc.

            The more positive their perception, the more inclined parents are to actively support children’s digital activities. The conditions that foster the development of digital competences in young children can therefore vary greatly from one family to another, and from one child to another, and so can the type and level of digital competences they develop.

            Most parents see the digital evolution as inevitable, useful but challenging and they ask for guidance, even if for the time being, parents see few risks and post-pone the risks mediation to the teenage years, when in fact the study saw children exposed to non-appropriate content, sharing content and sometimes personal data even via social networks. The majority of interviewed parents expressed the desire to be guided in managing their children’s engagement with digital technologies and to be enlightened about the positive and educational uses of digital technologies.

            Parents tend thus to support their children’s digital learning opportunities more if schools integrate digital technology in their homework requests, and tend to have more positive views upon technologies. The majority also believes that digital technologies are indispensable for the education of their children and therefore expects the school to play a key role in the digital enculturation of the new generations.

            As such, the study concludes that digital, mobile media are not (yet) personal tools for the young children (even though some of them have a great desire to own their own tablet or smartphone). They use them, whenever they can and are allowed to, but when they cannot use them, they use other toys and tools just as much. When schools integrate digital technologies in a meaningful way, children then develop and diversify their skills and become more aware of the risks.

            Few parents, especially fathers who are gamers themselves, consider video games, and those played on games consoles in particular, as quality family time. This positive and active parental mediation has been reported notably in the northern countries.

            Do parents put in place protective strategies to control the young children’s access to digital tools?

              Parents are challenged by the technology itself, finding it very helpful, as a convenient babysitter for example, but also hard to manage at the same time. In addition, parents are continuously challenged by their children, whose usage and strategies evolve quickly. A large majority sees the necessity for their children to learn how to use technologies from childhood, and to embrace the technologies of their time.

              Even if this study shows little evidence of positive parental guidance over specific programs, apps, online sites and experiences, most parents put in place protective strategies that limit and control digital access in one way or another (strongly or loosely), while the study reports widespread use of tablets and smartphones for games, video watching and social communication, to some extent. Paradoxically, parents tend to limit the access to and use of digital technologies despite the positive and supportive views they may have on early childhood digital literacy. Their limiting strategies are motivated by their fears about possible (future) negative effects on the physical (eyesight, concentration), cognitive capacities and social behaviour of their children, fears that children reflect in their own accounts. Their limiting strategies are motivated also by the values they attach to offline activities and they also worried about the consequences on the emotional state of their children. Although most parents believe in dialogue, they have not covered most risks and dangers with their children yet, referring to it as too early.

              If they are aware of dangers such as contact with strangers, cyberbullying and paedophilia, in general, parents' fears match only partially the risks as they seem less concerned regarding current dangers that may stem from inappropriate content as they felt that their children were too young and not sufficiently skilled to access inappropriate content online.

              While in a few cases, it is clear that children had occasionally accessed undesirable material, parents believe these are concerns for the future, as they feel their children are not exposed to them at such an early age. In addition, few parents reported commercial risks or concerns about privacy risks.

              1. co-use: using digital technologies together;
              2. active mediation: (e.g. helping children to understand what to do when confronted with an issue, being it technical or of content;
              3. restrictive mediation: general restrictions, such as time, and content limitations, such as banning certain sites or apps but also technical restrictions (use of firewall or passwords);
              4. monitoring and technical restrictions: parents supervise children’s internet use when nearby or after use;
              5. active distraction: parents’ proposition for alternative attractive off-line activities such as outdoor play or family play.

              The international sample of the study allowed cross-national analysis, which suggests the importance of social and cultural norms of the society the parents live in as a factor of influence of parental mediation.

              The least knowledgeable parents, often of modest socioeconomic status, tend to restrict the access to digital technology more strongly. Digitally knowledgeable parents, mostly from medium or higher socioeconomic status, or parents who see the harmonious integration of digital technology as a learning tool within the classroom tend to support actively and co-use digital technology with their children, guiding them more efficiently.

              A minority of parents choose a ‘laissez-faire‘ approach. A majority of those are single parents who suffer a lack of time and/ or of knowledge and confidence while taking advantage of the ‘SOS’ and ‘babysitter’ roles that digital technology can offer to retrieve time for work, or household tasks or themselves.

              Do parents and educators need more specific tools for teaching digital technologies to young children?

                The results of the present study show that parents are challenged by technology and the fast evolution of their children’s digital engagement. They need tools and guidance for developing active mediation strategies; parents with more knowledge and greater digital competences view digital technology more positively and seem to mediate their children’s engagement with more ease; parents’ influence over their children tends to shrink already from the age of 8-9 when there is a shift towards friends’ influence.

                The study also shows that numerous parents feel that they are powerless and that they lack information, skills and/or time to help their children in the digital world. They need guidelines more than ever as they face an unprecedented level of diversified media, including social networks.

                Children are either not at all or only little informed about digital safety measures, and most parents believe it is too soon to approach these issues with them, also because parents are not fully aware of their children’s online activities and of the risks they are exposed to.

                The study also shows that numerous parents feel that they are powerless and that they lack information, skills and/or time to help their children in the digital world. They need guidelines more than ever as they face an unprecedented level of diversified media, including social networks.

                Developing practical materials for parents to support their mediation strategies from when their children are very young (kindergarten), is key to guide them in building digital mediation strategies to increase the benefit of digital activities while mitigating their potential harm. Indeed, this study is documenting a proportion close to 1 out of 10 children showing signs of overuse, with all boys in their sample and shows gaps in supply of suitable and service solutions tailored for children.

                Services and information campaigns informing parents and professionals on the children’s use of technologies and the importance of digital literacy should be created. They should instruct them on approaches and strategies to increase the benefit of digital activities while mitigating their potential harm. Professional figures (pediatricians, psychologists, nurses, care givers, teachers...) should be among the targeted groups of services and campaigns to instruct them on such approaches and strategies. Indeed, parents consider them as experts and usually they seek for help and support from them.

                Support to parents and professionals would also further help to develop a harmonized digital culture at European level, reduce digital gaps, enhance digital creativity, raise awareness, as well as to build critical thinking and resilience. Further research is needed in this area with specific research questions and an adapted methodology.

                These services and information campaigns should pay particular attention to vulnerable families, i.e. with less availability of time and/ or resources, particularly single parent families of lower social-economic status as our study shows that they lack both time and competences and sometimes resources for the digital mediation of their children.

                What is the importance of schools in teaching digital technologies to young children?

                  In the last couple of years, some parents have intensified their expectations regarding the role that technology might play at school. Indeed, increasingly parents believe that mastering digital technologies and developing digital skills are indispensable for the education of their children. They expect the school to play a key role in the digital enculturation of the new generations.

                  Schools can have a major influence over the acquisition of digital competences - including creativity -, when integrating digital technology as active learning tools but also on raising awareness, building critical thinking and resilience, and finally influencing parents’ positive perceptions of digital technology as an efficient learning tool.

                  Developing digital literacy at school from an early age (kindergarten) would also help to raise awareness on safety issues and measures, and to build critical thinking and resilience in the digital context.

                  In this study, this has been observed in Nordic countries. Parents tend to support more their children’s digital learning opportunities if schools integrate digital technology in their homework requests and tend to have more positive views upon these technologies. In Malta where the government provided recently a tablet to every 9 year-old child similar observations are expected.

                  Meaningful integration of digital technology in didactics would also influence parents’ positive perceptions of digital technology as a learning tool and increase parents’ support in the acquisition of digital skills useful for the digital future. For example, there is a need for new tales that will help children to understand the digital worlds, its components, its interactions, its dangers, as children show difficulties to conceptualise the digital world and its abstract reality.

                  What are the main recommendations for parents regarding digital safety for young children?

                    The results of the study show that numerous parents feel powerless, lacking information, skills and/or time to help their children in the digital world. The study shows that children are still not or little informed about digital safety measures, and most parents believe it is too soon to approach these issues with them, also because parents are not fully aware of their children’s online activities and of the risks they are exposed to.

                    Parents should be proactive and continuously improve their knowledge and skills regarding the devices, apps and websites their children are using/visiting. The study invites them to consult other parents, teachers and other relevant experts to help them in this task. Popular online platforms are also increasingly providing materials to help mediating children’s online experiences, also available in numerous languages.

                    The study invites parents to participate and accompany their children in their digital activities, to listen to their interests and needs and positively (still critically) discuss them together. This would contribute to the development of children’s skills and give parents clearer comprehension of their children’s digital activities.

                    Developing in this context practical materials for parents to support their mediation strategies from when their children are very young (kindergarten) is key to guide them in building digital mediation strategies to increase the benefit of digital activities while mitigating their potential harm.

                    As children grow, they become more curious and eager to experiment and explore. Parents should be aware of the role model they play when they themselves use digital technology as young children learn to use technology copying adults’ behaviours.

                    For the same reason, when parents chose rules as mediation strategies, they should consider family rules that apply to every family member. Children are also inclined to respect more rules that they negotiate and that parents themselves follow.

                    Parents should to take special care to support the early digital and media literacy of their children, focusing on critical thinking, creative activities and responsible online behaviour.

                    Parents are invited to take the habit of talking with their children about their online life in the same way as they would discuss school life. This habit will ease the immediate mediation of children’s digital activities and will put the basis of communication for a future one for which trustful relationship on the subject is key.

                    Finally, the study indicates that among parents, mothers and fathers mediate children’s digital technology use differently. Father’s active contribution to the development of children’s digital skills is essential as they often appear more confident in dealing with digital technology than mothers do.

                    What digital industry should do about teaching digital technologies to young children?

                      The design of devices should empower and protect children by embedding effective digital literacy and safety mechanisms ‘by design’ into devices and software, especially social media. For example, by providing tools that enhance parental mediation instead of purely restrictive parental control tools; by improving the user-friendliness of content labelling mechanisms and reporting tools; by offering easily accessible and child- friendly information on the services they offer to children and their parents about on-line risks and safety of digital technologies.

                      Promoting systematic use of a clear and unified age rating system for any digital content across platforms, including social ones, would improve signposting and would support parents in their choice of appropriate content for children.

                      Veröffentlichungen A-Z

                      Get involved!

                      This summary is free and ad-free, as is all of our content. You can help us remain free and independant as well as to develop new ways to communicate science by becoming a Patron!

                      PatreonBECOME A PATRON!