Seven Myths about Young Children and Technology

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Parents and educators tend to have many questions about young children's play with computers and other technologies at home. They can find it difficult to know what is best for children because these toys and products were not around when they were young. Some will tell you that children have an affinity for technology that will be valuable in their future lives. Others think that children should not be playing with technology when they could be playing outside or reading a book.

The Research Background

Over the last decade, we have carried out a series of detailed case studies with more than fifty 3- and 4-year-old children and their families (see box on p. 32). We visited families repeatedly over a period of a year or more, getting to know the families well. Our multiple methods (such as observations, child-led home tours, and shared discussions with parents and children) helped us construct multifaceted pictures of children's everyday lives, how parents and children think and feel about a range of issues, and the role of digital media in supporting learning. Our choice of research methods was informed by an ecocultural approach that looks at the ecology of children's experiences and the cultures in which they participate, seeing these as key developmental factors (Weisner, 2002).

In this discussion, "technology" refers to the devices--such as computers and cell phones--and to the products or outputs--such as DVDs, websites, games, and interactive stories--that are viewed, read, played, or created on these devices. By the time they started school (at age 5 in the United Kingdom), the children in our studies had encountered cell phones; televisions; games consoles; DVD and MP3 players; desktop, notebook, and tablet computers used for work and leisure; and technological toys, such as play laptops or interactive pets.

A lot of media coverage has explored the advantages and disadvantages of children being exposed to computers and other digital media at ever-younger ages, but little concrete evidence is available for making such determinations. In its absence, a number of widespread myths about children's experiences with technologies have emerged. We have selected seven positions we have come across from the media, parents, and educators and use the evidence from our research to provide a commentary on each one. We conclude by considering why it is beneficial for education professionals to know more about children's experiences with technology at home.

1. Childhood and technology shouldn't mix

Those who believe that childhood should be a time of innocence and play see technology as responsible for children's lack of social skills and emotional development, the loss of pleasure in books and reading, and attacks on their physical and mental well-being (Plowman, McPake, & Stephen, 2010). Technology, it is thought, has particularly adverse effects on preschoolers because they are still developing cognitively and socially, leading to advice that young children should not be exposed to computers or television because this will be detrimental both at the time and later in life (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010).

We found that young children's experiences with technology differed considerably from one family to another: nearly all children watched television and DVDs, but they varied in their enthusiasm for such activities as playing video games, surfing the web, or playing with interactive dolls and pets. Children expressed their own play preferences; some were keen to play with these devices, but others had little or no interest (Stephen, McPake, Plowman, & Berch-Heyman, 2008).

All parents considered it to be important for young children to balance technology-based activity with more traditional games, books, and outdoor play. Most believed they had achieved a good balance for their own children, although some worried that cell phones could endanger health and others were concerned that it was easy to become "addicted" to video gaming. …