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‘Technology as the Beach’ – how a new way of thinking about children’s use of digital technologies may lead to better outcomes for children

03 Jun, 2022

Children’s use of digital technology such as tablet computers, mobile phones and TVs is a hot topic of community interest. However, parents and professionals working with children and families currently receive conflicting messages about how best to use technologies with young children.

Media reports highlight the potential physical, mental and social wellbeing risks of children using technology but also suggest digital technology use is essential to children’s learning, development and socialisation.

Technology as potentially harmful, but also essential for learning, development and socialisation, suggests a conflict between using or not using technology with children. This conflict can be seen in guidelines from government and other authorities. For example, public health guidelines typically position ‘screens’ as toxic and recommend their use should be minimised1 whilst education and industry organisations promote their use to support children’s learning and social participation as citizens2 and the United Nations declare access to digital technology as a right of children3. We have previously argued that these opposing perspectives create confusion and that a new perspective is needed4. We have also noted that the community experiences with COVID-19 highlighted the use of technology for education, play and staying in touch with friends and family and provided an opportunity to re-imagine children’s technology use5.

One way of reducing the conflict between using or not using technology may be to think about children using technologies in the same way we think about helping children to enjoy the beach.

The beach can be a risky place for children – they could drown, be dumped by a wave and experience an injury, there are many creatures there that could harm children, or children might get sunburnt, and later in life develop skin cancer.

However, the beach can also be an engaging and happy place for children – they can have fun with friends, play games with family, or relax. Opportunities to be physically active at the beach help children to develop stronger muscles, bones, coordination and heart fitness. They benefit from socialising with family and friends, and get to learn about and experience nature.

It would seem extreme to ban children from enjoying the beach because of the risks. Rather, as a community and as parents we create a series of safeguards to help children gain the benefits of being at the beach whilst respecting and navigating the risks. We set up ‘swim between the flags’ safe zones, we have responsible adults accompany children, we teach children critical skills like how to swim, how to spot a rip, and how to ‘be sunsmart’, and we engage with our children to help them play, learn and socialise respectfully with friends and family.

What would the conflict between using or not using technologies with children look like if we thought about technology like we think about the beach? Yes, there are risks, but using technology also has benefits for children. Just like at the beach where children develop skills like swimming and knowledge about the ocean, using technology allows children to develop skills and knowledge to navigate the digital environment and its many opportunities for learning and education.

We think research should be directed towards enabling children to gain the benefits whilst reducing the risks.

For example, we worked with Early Childhood Australia to develop a Statement on Young Children and Digital Technologies6. This assists educators to develop practices which help children learn about using digital technology while enabling positive relationships, supporting their health and well-being, promoting digital citizenship and fostering opportunities for digital play and learning.

Similarly, in an Australian Research Council funded project7 we are working with ABC Kids, the Raising Children Network and PlaygroupWA to develop resources for parents to use technology to promote physical activity in young children and help parent strategies to support children to learn self-management skills to transition smoothly from sitting at a screen to some other activity. We also collaborate with the Australian Council on Children and the Media to support their work providing guidance on movies and apps that are appropriate for children.

We have also recently started work as part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child to bring together the perspectives of different areas of knowledge to provide evidence-based information considering the whole child8.

Parents are risk managers and promotors of experimentation to enable children to develop competence and confidence in many things (hot water, relationships, learning to walk, hygiene, roads, sharp objects etc). Instead of focussing on conflict and contributing to adult confusion about children using technology, now is the time to rethink how, why and when to use technology in positive ways which minimise risk – just like we ensure children are safe, well and happy at the beach. This would help families to better prepare their children for life in a digital world.

References

  1. Department of Health (2017). Australian 24-hour movement guidelines for the early years (birth to 5 years): an integration of physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep. Commonwealth of Australia. Canberra, Australia.
  2. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (2009). Belonging, being and becoming: the early years learning framework for Australia. Commonwealth of Australia. Canberra, Australia.
  3. United Nations (2021). General comment No.25 (2021) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment. Committee on the Rights of the Child, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. CRC Geneva, Switzerland.
  4. Straker, L., J. Zabatiero, S. Danby, K. Thorpe and S. Edwards (2018). Conflicting guidelines on young children’s screen time and use of digital technology create policy and practice dilemmas. Journal of Pediatrics 202: 300-303.
  5. Straker, L., V. Booth, V. Cleland, S. Gomersall, D. Lubans, T. Olds, L. Reece, N. Ridgers, M. Stylianou, G. Tomkinson and K. Hesketh (2022). Re-imagining physical activity for children following the systemic disruptions from the COVID pandemic in Australia. British Journal of Sports Medicine. June. Retrieved from https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/bjsports/early/2022/05/18/bjsports-2021-105277.full.pdf
  6. Edwards, S., L. Straker and H. Oakey (2018). Statement on Young Children and Digital Technologies. Early Childhood Australia. Canberra, Australia.
  7. Edwards, S., A. Nolan, M. Henderson, S. Grieshaber, K. Highfield, A. Salamon, H. Skouteris and L. Straker (2020). Rationale, design and methods protocol for participatory design of an Online Tool to support industry service provision regarding digital technology use ‘with, by and for’ young children. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17: 8819.
  8. Straker, L., A. Beynon, S. Smith, D. Johnson, P. Wyeth, J. Sefton-Green and L. Kervin (May 2020 preprint). Towards a transdisciplinary approach to evidence-based decision making regarding digital technology use with, by and for children. Retrieved from osf.io/7krjv

Acknowledgments

Australian Research Council Linkage Project #LP190100387 and Centre of Excellence #CE200100022


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About the author/s

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Leon Straker is an international leader in research on technology use and its implications for children’s physical wellbeing. As Co-Leader of the Healthy Child program and node leader for Curtin University, Leon hopes that his transdisciplinary expertise wil ... more
Professor Susan Edwards is an expert in digital play and cyber-safety education in the early years. Her work in the Centre will focus on the role and use of digital play in early childhood education settings, with the aim to generate new insights and pedagogical examples to support educators in prov ... more
Dr Kate Highfield is an experienced leader, teacher and researcher in the early childhood education and care sector, with an interest in how technology impacts learning, pedagogy and play. Kate will contribute expertise to the Educated and Healthy Child programs, drawing on her research focus on tou ... more
Laura Stone is the Early Childhood Education Producer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). She manages ABC Kids Early Education online and builds opportunities for early learning and educator engagement in world class ABC Kids media and digital resources. ... more
Derek McCormack is Director of the Raising Children Network. He leads a talented team in the knowledge translation and online delivery of evidence-informed resources supporting parents and carers around the healthy development of children. ... more
David Zarb is CEO of Playgroup WA. He leads a wonderful team of people focussed on supporting and advocating for playgroups in Western Australia, to provide young children with the opportunity for play-based socialisation and parents with opportunities to be confident in their role. ... more
Barbara Biggins OAM CF has been an advocate for children’s interests in relation to the media since 1973. Barbara will provide ongoing Web of Science search citations in fields related to children’s use of screens to ensure members are well informed of the latest in literature in the fie ... more
Dr Danica Hendry is a physiotherapist and Research Fellow based at Curtin University. Danica will explore how young children engage with digital technologies and the impacts this may have on their physical health, particularly their movement and posture. Her PhD project employed the use of machine l ... more
Dr George Thomas will undertake high quality research to understand digital technology use in children, including developing better measurement of technology use and postures/movement of children through wearable cameras and sensors. Through his work with the Centre, George hopes to better understan ... more
Associate Professor Amity Campbell specialises in movement analysis, advanced biomechanics and the application of measurement technologies to understand health pathologies and outcomes, including laboratory-based systems and state-of-the-art field-based sensor systems. Amity will apply her unique sk ... more
Associate Professor Courtenay Harris is a researcher in occupational therapy, with a focus on child-related ergonomics. Courtenay will contribute to projects in the Healthy Child program, investigating family and community perceptions about digital technology use by young children and the impact of ... more
Dr Juliana Zabatiero’s research focuses on screen technology use and its influence on physical activity and sedentary behaviours. She is involved in the Centre’s Longitudinal Family Study and the Healthy Child program, focussing on how young children and their families use screen technology and ... more

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