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Young children, their parents, and digital technologies: how are kids using screens?

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Context - Children are getting access to screens and to digital content more easily and at a younger age than ever before.

How are they using smartphones and tablets?

What are the potential consequences and what should parents do to protect them?

This is a faithful summary of the leading report produced in 2018 by European Commission (EC): "Young children (0-8) and digital technology, a qualitative study across Europe " 

  • Source document:EC (2018)
  • Summary & Details: GreenFacts
Latest update: 15 November 2018

1. Introduction

Kids are getting access to screens and the internet younger and younger, and most children, even babies and toddlers, 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. This study, by the EU’s Joint Research Center (JRC), has interviewed 234 families across 21 countries between 2014 and 2017 to look not only at the patterns of use of digital technologies by children, but also at the attitude of parents towards that use. However, it does not cover aspects related to potential neurobiological developmental effects of digital technologies on young children.

2. How do young children interact with digital technologies?

Children develop digital skills at home, mostly through the observation and mirroring or parents and older siblings. They learn very quickly, are often more knowledgeable than their parents realize, and are able to navigate around their shortcomings, not the least of which is the inability to read and write. They have now their first contact with digital technologies and screens at a very early age (below 2) through their parents’ devices, which are not tailored for them in the first place. But in general, their parents are still little aware of the risks associated with the use of digital technologies.

Most popular are small screens like phones and tablets that allow mobility and have 24/7 availability, as well as autonomy of choice and use. However (very) young children lack agency and clear representation of the tools they use daily, such as the internet, Wi-Fi or social networks, and following their interests and needs, using trial and error entails some risks.

3. How do parents presently see their young children’s screen use?

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. 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. The more positive their perception, the more inclined parents are to actively support children’s digital activities.

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.). A few parents only mentioned bullying and cyber-bullying while reporting on their experience with children aged 7-9.

Five key strategies are used by parents to mediate their children’s use of digital technologies:

  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.

Parents tend 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 of parents also believe 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.

4. What is the importance of schools in learning digital technologies?

When schools integrate digital technologies in a meaningful way, children then develop and diversify their skills and become more aware of the risks. Schools can have a major influence over the acquisition of digital competences - including creativity -, when integrating digital technology as active learning tools.

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. Increasingly, parents believe that mastering digital technologies and developing digital skills are indispensable for the education of their children.

5. What are the recommendations for parents and for involved industries regarding access of young children to digital technologies?

For the industry:

  1. More suitable solutions and services tailored for children, including safety features and digital literacy tools.
  2. Better tools for parents to mediate their child’s use.
  3. To support initiatives aimed at promoting digital literacy.
  4. Promoting systematic use of a clear and unified age rating system for any digital content across platforms.

For parents:

  • Be proactive and improve knowledge and skills regarding the devices, apps and websites their children are using/visiting.
  • Communicate with children about potential risks and try to be aware of the online activities of children.
  • Participate and accompany their children in their digital activities, to listen to their interests and needs, and positively (still critically) discuss them together.
  • Be aware of the role model they play when they themselves use digital technology, as young children learn to use technology copying adults’ behaviours.
  • Take special care to support the early digital and media literacy of their children, focusing on critical thinking, creative activities and responsible online behavior.

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