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Jill Fox: Screen time and what it means for children

By BY JILL ENGLEBRIGHT FOX
Sept. 10, 2012 at 4:10 a.m.

Jill Englebright Fox

Not long ago, I spent an extended weekend with two preschoolers. Over the course of three days, I taught the children to play Go Fish and Slap Jack while they taught me to play Angry Birds and to download free princess applications on my iPad.

Their mother warned me not to let them see me input my user name and password in any application, or my password protection would be null and void. To say that I was amazed at the comfort and ease with which these children maneuvered from application to application on my iPad and smart phone is an understatement. The experiences of that weekend have since made me pay closer attention to the interactions I see daily between children and technology. From the 10-month-old baby on the plane listening to animal sounds on her mother's iPhone to the 6-year-old watching Shrek 3 on a DVD player during a family dinner at Cracker Barrel, these interactions are not hard to spot.

I have always supported the use of technology with young children. As a public school kindergarten teacher back in the late 1980s, I wrote a grant to Apple computers and was the first teacher in the school to have a classroom computer for the children to use. Technology is very much a part of our lives in the here and now, and will be increasingly a part of our lives in the future. It is important that children learn to appropriately access and use technology. The key word here is appropriately. We want children to see technology as a tool for enriching their futures and we want them to use technology to their benefit, rather than for their detriment.

"Screen time" is the term used to describe the collective time children spend engaging with various technology devices, including TVs, computers, DVD players, smart phones and tablet devices. Current studies indicate that American children under the age of 2 have, on average, more than two hours every day of screen time and most preschoolers have even more. This is problematic. During the preschool years, the primary developmental task for children is to learn to interact positively with others by controlling their behaviors and emotions and by using language to communicate. Considering that children under the age of 2 sleep for 12-16 hours of every 24, two hours is a large chunk of their day. Playing Angry Birds and watching Shrek 3 does not contribute to their development in any way and, in fact, undermines it in some very real ways.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media have issued a position statement titled "Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age Eight." This statement recommends that for children younger than age two, screen time should be limited to that which will support and encourage the child's interactions with loving adults. Skyping with a parent deployed overseas, reading a story on Kindle with Grandma, identifying electronic photos of family members on the computer - these are examples of technology interactions that support the development of children under the age of two.

The position statement further encourages parents and teachers to ensure that technology interactions for children between the ages of 3 and 5 years are non-passive and supportive of social relationships and that daily screen time, including television viewing, is less than two hours. Draw and paint programs and word-processing programs that encourage children to think originally are strongly recommended for preschoolers, while video games are strongly discouraged. Indeed, the research on video games for young children is alarming, identifying negative effects on relationships with peers, parents, and teachers.

Children are a blessing, but, as any parent knows, they are also a responsibility. As parents and teachers, it is important that we make informed decisions about the ways in which our children interact with technology. I encourage you to read the position statement at NAEYC.org and to carefully consider your child's screen time. Make sure that technology is supporting your child's future and not just occupying time in the present.

Jill Englebright Fox, Ph.D., is a professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Houston-Victoria School of Education and Human Development.

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