Children and digital media

By: John Howard

Contemporary families swim in an ocean of ubiquitous, accessible media options, enticements and distractions. Smart devices exist in all shapes and sizes. The digital world is integrated into the very fabric of our daily lives and provides a wide range of function: entertainment, information, communication, commerce, work, organization, scheduling and security.

In the midst of this digitized/media environment, families are tasked with raising their children in ways that are optimal for their ongoing growth and development. Over the past 15 years, early years research has provided us with significant insight in how children optimally develop and how important and impactful early years development is to one’s subsequent school success and life trajectory. More currently, research is beginning to assess the impact of the digitized media environments on these critical early years.

The Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS) posted a position statement Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world, on June 1, 2017. In their statement, the CPS assessed the benefits and risks of technology and media on the developmental, psychosocial and physical growth of children from 0 to 5 years of age. The CPS statement is worthy of attention because their four guiding principles for health care providers are based on an exhaustive survey of current research. These four guiding principles in relation to digitized media are: minimizing, mitigating, mindfully using and modelling healthy use of screens.

The Welcome to KindergartenTM program (WTK) seeks to share resources and strategies with families towards making play a priority in the home and to ensure that all children make a successful transition to kindergarten. The pre-eminent WTK key message is that “family is the first and most important teacher of the child.” The other WTK key messages on the critical family role to structure, guiding and engaging in the early years experiences of their children are:

  • Follow your child’s lead as you play and discover together.
  • Talk and read with your child in your first language.
  • Help your child to share and take turns.
  • Encourage your child to make choices and decisions.
  • Celebrate your child’s learning.

Over the past three years, there have been many requests from WTK stakeholders to develop key messages related to media use that would support families and their children in healthy engagement within the rapidly evolving digital world. In response to requests, the WTK program developed the following Healthy Media Key Messages for families:

  1. Family Guidance: Engage with your child in their media experience to help your child develop socially, promote language development and enrich learning.
  2. Media Content and Features: Be selective about your child’s media experiences and look for open-ended, creative opportunities that generate conversation.
  3. Media Time and Family Life: Balance media time with playtime. Make unplugged playtime a daily priority. Keep family mealtimes and other social gatherings tech-free.
  4. Safety: Use parental control settings that keep your child safe from inappropriate internet content.

A number of articles have been written recently that underscore that family guidance and engagement is important in curating experiences that take place in the digital universe. The New York Times raised concerns in an article posted on November 4, 2017: On YouTube Kids, Startling Videos Slip Past Filters. The Google-owned YouTube Kids site is extraordinarily popular with upwards of 11 million weekly viewers. The Times article raises the concern that not all of the videos posted on YouTube Kids are suitable for children. In fact, some are very disturbing and clearly inappropriate. Within the article, the head of Google’s family and learning content outlines their system of making their product “family friendly”. In spite of this claim, the spokesperson clearly states that their App “isn’t a curated experience” and “parents are in the driver’s seat.”

For those who wish to dig deeper into how disturbing content is actually created and appears on YouTube Kids, an online article in Medium provides more in-depth analysis of the human and technological forces at play. James Bridle’s article, Something’s Wrong on the Internet, offers a cautionary note at the beginning of the essay that states, “Please be advised: this essay describes disturbing things and links to disturbing graphic and video content. You don’t have to read it, and are advised to take caution exploring further.”
In spite of Bridle’s cautionary note, the essay raises concerns that Google is aware of and have instituted new policies to further filter and restrict inappropriate videos. Sarah Buhr reports on Google’s efforts in her November article in Tech Crunch: YouTube implements new policy to flag inappropriate videos targeted at children.

This flurry of news has transpired since November 2017. The content and analyses indicate how rapidly technology is evolving and how difficult it is, even for the most tech savvy families to be aware of what’s happening in “family friendly” digital landscapes. If a trusted brand like YouTube Kids is cautioning families to “be in the driver’s seat” and curate all of their children’s experiences on their platform, one can only wonder what is being created and uploaded for children’s use on other less well-known and trusted platforms.

Finally, the issues raised in this article do not even scratch the surface on other equally profound concerns regarding children’s growth and development and their exposure and experience in the digital landscape. There are many concerns regarding screen time and its impact on physical activity, sleep patterns, psychosocial development that all require concerted family reflection, home structures and ongoing conversation.

The WTK Healthy Media Key Messages recognize the pre-eminent role of the family in children’s growth and the CPS position statement and the most recent technology news reports underline families’ responsibility to take that role seriously and to be active in fulfilling it.

John Howard is the National Program Manager for the Welcome to Kindergarten (WTK) program. Annually, WTK engages with over 100 school boards, 8,000 educators and 100,000 families towards making play a priority in the home and ensuring a smooth transition to kindergarten for every child. John has a Masters of Education with more than 40 years of educator experience as a practitioner and leader.

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