Impact of digital cultures on young minds and bodies

July 22, 2016

Prejudices, reasons and discoveries

Digital learningDanielaMiscov1

When I started to study the relationship of digital technology on children I firmly believed that the Internet, with all its associated devices, had detrimental effects on reading. This is what I have experienced as a parent with my teenage son. I thought he spent too much time chatting, playing video games, and all kind of applications on his smartphone. I thought he spent too many hours on social media and at the same time, he didn’t seem to enjoy reading books I gave him very much. However he did very well at school.

On the other hand, I had a lot of success as a teacher when I integrated YouTube stories into my English kindergarten workshops. The children’s interest was at its greatest level. The stories contained songs, dance and movement with beautifully designed characters that appealed to children.

Digital technology and childhood

 “How is digital technology changing childhood? Do children find digital technologies exciting for reasons beyond simple entertainment? Does extensive screen time lead to increased distraction, obesity and loneliness? Is technology beneficial or detrimental to child development?

Dr Nathalia Gjersoe, developmental psychologist at the Faculty of Education and Language Studies at the Open University, and researcher into children’s cognitive development (as well as a mum herself) asked these questions on an MOOC course I attended, Childhood in the Digital Age, by The Open University, on Future Learn. I was as curious as any parent to find more documented answers to questions that I kept asking myself.

Questions about my teenage son’s time with  video games, chatting, use of social media and apps, but I was also curious as a teacher in relationship to my kindergarten children. Was their time wasted or did they also really learn something?

When the children aged  2 or 3 years old came to the kindergarten or when they left, I saw them playing on their parents’ smartphones quite skilfully, something which amazed me. They  looked so focused, they performed so well, they liked it so much. So I had to conclude: digital technology is here, is accessible  and part of our life, for both adults and children. It will never disappear no matter what we may do and childhood is different, of course, for this reason.

My observation of children’s skill in handling the smartphones and my use of technology in the classroom were later confirmed by scientific research.

Very young children are ‘growing up at ease with digital devices that are rapidly becoming the tools of the culture at home, at school, at work, and in the community’ (NAEYC, 2012, p. 2). Digital and media literacy has been a curriculum focus in the early childhood classroom in many European countries for at least a decade. Compared to many parents, educational institutions seem better prepared to integrate new technologies within educational settings. ( Zero to Eight: Young children and their internet use , D. Holloway, L. Green and S. Livingstone).

Continuing with this line of thought, after watching the Earlyarts webinar with Dr. Andrew Manches, I appreciated  his remark that young children can learn not just from hands-on experiences but also in other ways, whilst using technology. On the basis of his research, against the common belief, he concluded that there isn’t just one way to learn (i.e. from concrete to abstract), especially when it comes to maths and sciences.

Digital learningDanielaMiscov2

This important scientific conclusion has been confirmed by another project about maths, done first in Malawi in Africa. In Malawi, class sizes are up to 90 children, taught only by one teacher. These children were offered iPads with a maths app.  Researchers concluded that the children working on the iPads for 30 minutes a day for one week equalled three months of formal education. The fact that children got immediate feedback encouraged them to work harder and achieve better results. Dr Nikki Pitchford from the University of Nottingham has taken this initiative to the UK, with similar positive results.

The conclusion was that digital technology is like any other aspect in kids’ lives. It can be useful or harmful depending on the time spent and the contents digested. A balance is needed and also close adult supervision.  It is the duty of parents and carers to teach their kids how to deal with it and how to make it a positive tool in their lives. While children develop, parents and carers should show them “the side effects of the uncontrolled use of digital technologies on their physical, emotional and social life by giving them evidence to convince them”. But more than this “as parents we need to equip children with the skills and knowledge to avoid these risks and become responsible digital children”.(Childhood in the digital age, The Open University).

It is evident that our children are really digital children. They are so fluent when it comes to new technology that psychologists have called them ‘digital natives’. They are better and faster than us adults. This is why some researchers consider that the old approach of didactic teaching is no longer suited to the intellectual, social, motivational, and emotional needs of the new generation. (Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing Up Digital. The Rise of the Net Generation p. 131). Instead digital technology is recommended, also to young children, under attentive adult guidance.

What is the impact of digital technologies?  What are the good things they bring in terms of development?

Technologies offer opportunities for autonomy and experimentation

According to Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s (2000) self-determination theory (SDT),  there are three main psychological features which can be associated with the need and pleasure of children in using technology:

  • competence– the sense of mastery of something;
  • relatedness– connection with others online and sense of closeness;
  • autonomy– children being in control of their lives and making rational choices about how they use technology and for what purpose.

Of course these features do not apply to all children, especially not to very young ones, but they offer a basic understanding of children’s motivation.

It is interesting to read the conclusions of a study, Exploring Play and Creativity in Pre-Schoolers’ Use of Apps, in which young children’s play and creativity when using tablet apps, was explored. It was a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield and Edinburgh, the public broadcasting channel CBeebies, Monteney Primary School, Sheffield and media industry partners Dubit and Foundling Bird. Information about the project can be found on the Technology and Play website.

The main idea is that, where the needs of specific age ranges within the pre-school bracket were observed, apps stimulated play and creativity.  So  we must know that the answer to the question, ‘should children under the age of two avoid any contact with technology?‘ is No! We shouldn’t avoid it.

Researchers also confirmed that there are other real benefits associated with young children’s early exposure to technology. Beside socialization, sharing, taking turn, learning rules, using imagination, some apps demand special physical and manipulative skills – which are also developmentally beneficial.

Carers and children

Some parents and carers are very cautious, others are open and trusting when it comes to their child’s access to the internet, tablet, games and the rest. I have always been cautious, trying to guide my son to keep a balance between real games and the digital world. I must admit that I myself spend a lot of time on the computer, not just for work but also on social media and sending emails just like the rest of the world.  I think that as adults we are also confronted with this challenge and we should find the best way to self-regulate this, both as models for our children, and in terms of our own well-being.

At this point the educators on the course recommended watching a short film about two parents struggling to control their kids’ access to digital technology.

Parents confess, “It’s very, very hard to limit our children’s involvement with the digital world. It is partly hard because we are addicted ourselves. Kids see us doing this.

As carers and educators we should always be aware that children tend to copy us. They are more influenced by what we do than by what we say.  As for me, I kept on reading a lot of books but I also intensively used digital technology in as many ways as possible, also including new ways, like online learning on the Future Learn platform.

One thing is certain, after having taken the course Childhood in the Digital Age, which offered so many resources,  I am no longer so critical of the use of technology by children. In fact now I fully believe in the benefits of digital technology. I noticed this at my workshops at the kindergarten. Children memorised the songs so fast and with so much pleasure, but more than this, they learnt the accent, the contextual details, the social background and the gestures of the characters.  A very complex kind of learning.

And after all, maybe my son doesn’t need books as much, maybe he has found other ways to read and learn, his own ways. I remember one time when he told me the plot of a video game after The Game of Thrones, that employed hundreds of characters and so many microplots, each placed inside the other, like the Matrioshka dolls. I had to take notes and make some graphs to understand what was going on, while he was so relaxed telling me the story, with no visual aid and  knowing the names of  all the characters. He was 12 then and I think he is no exception – all the children of his generation are like this; digital natives.

by Daniela Miscov, Manager, Artelier D


Artelier D, Proiecte pentru copii is a free art and education association whose mission is to bring stories to babies and children, on the basis of all Art languages: theatre, music, fine arts, visual arts. We are close to children in all ways and this closeness is the source of our inspiration.

Artelier D, Proiecte pentru copii
Facebook:  Artelier-D-Proiecte-pentru-copii//Food Revolution Romania


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