How and When to Introduce Your Child to Technology

Dr. Chip Donohue, Founding Director of Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at Erikson Institute Senior Fellow and Advisor, Fred Roger Center

In this interview, Chip Donohue, the Founding Director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center, former Dean of Distance Learning and Continuing Education at the Erikson Institute and senior Fellow and Member of the Advisory Board of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, will discuss how and when to introduce technology to your children and share tips for surviving the digital age as a family.

Full Interview Transcript

KellyChip, thank you so much for coming on here today with such an important topic. I think no one knows how to handle technology and their children, and I really appreciate you sharing all of your research and insight.

Dr Donohue: Happy to do that. It is a hot topic.

Kelly: It is a hot topic, and I’ll start with the big question. At what age and how should you introduce your child to technology?

Dr Donohue: That probably is the million-dollar question. There is no easy answer. I guess the easiest answer is for the youngest children – infants and toddlers – below 18 months, the American Society of Pediatrics recommends no screen time. I really think what children need in those earliest years is human relationships. They learn language by talking to parents and all of that, so screens really aren’t a big deal and don’t need to be part of their lives at that point. I think younger pre-schoolers – 3, 4 and 5 – are living in a world full of screens. They are familiar with them in ways we don’t even understand because it’s new to all of us, but they have been born into this. So I am very comfortable with pre-schoolers using computers, but I am wanting the use to be intentional and appropriate. I am wanting parents or educators to be thinking about what are they doing, how long are they doing it for, why a screen versus something else. There’s always that trade-off between time on the screen and time outside, or time playing in a different way, so I think parents and educators should be mindful of that.

Kelly: That’s such a big question because I feel like, especially at that young age, the technology as we know it today, was not designed for kids. They are designed for adults and they were designed to make us addicted to it, so how can you moderate a child who doesn’t have any impulse? How can you teach them to not…I feel like when you see a child, they just can’t get enough of it. They scream, they yell, they want it back, so it’s like …should you just try not give it to them at all or do you think it’s okay?

Dr Donohue: I think not giving them at all is a parent’s choice, if that is the way you decide to raise your kids. I am not going to argue with you about that. I don’t think it’s necessary to say no screens. I do think kids are growing up in a world full of screens. Everywhere they look, there is another kind of screen in front of them, so that familiarity is important. I just think that young kids, this is their world. They need opportunities to use the tools of their world, tools of the culture, tools of the day, tools they see their parents using all the time, and so I think when it comes to kids, yes, there might be a fuss at the end of the game playing time when you say turn it off and let’s do something else.

I always joke that that’s the child’s job. A 4-year olds is supposed to fuss. That’s what four year olds do. You are the adult. You are supposed to say that the end is here and that’s what you do, so setting limits I think is important. Being aware of how much is too much. If your own instinct as a parent is that it’s long enough on the screen, then it has been long enough. That’s fine! That’s enough, and trust your instincts on that.

Kelly: So the younger kids, the 3, 4, 5 year olds for example, what kinds of things would you recommend are okay for them to be doing?

Dr Donohue: Sure, so I know the word ‘addiction’ gets thrown around a lot and it gets great headlines and gets a lot of attention, but I think it’s completely inappropriate for the youngest children. I have not seen a 3-year old, a 4-year old or a 5-year old addicted. In the medical language, we are starting to say problematic screen use. There are kids that have trouble letting go of that, or want to make that as their number 1 choice to the exclusion of other things we know are developmentally important, so I think that’s one.

I always say look for interactive media and interaction with others, so look for things that kids are doing on the screen, on the tablet screen that are interactive and engage them. They are not just passive, but also things that will draw others into it. So it might be a parent. It might be a sibling. It might be a friend but these can be very social technologies, even though what we are mostly worried about is that they will be isolated.

Kelly: So do you have a couple of specific examples of something, like a game or something?

Dr Donohue: Yes, I hate to hem and haw, but I don’t tend to call out specific products because in my role, people see that as an endorsement, so let me answer it in a different way. I think tools that are open-ended, tools that are ways that kids can learn about their world – an iPhone, an iPad, a tablet, a smartphone – can be an amazing tool for exploring the world, taking a photo of something, making a little video about something, talking into the thing and recording their own voice, so I’m really excited about digital story-telling, and how these tools can help kids tell stories in new ways, in ways they couldn’t before. That ought to be the marker whether the technology is useful or not. Does it allow the child to do something in a different way, or do something they couldn’t do before?

Kelly: Okay, so in terms of brain development, I know there isn’t enough research, but can you speak at all to how the use of technology impacts the development of a young child’s brain?

Dr Donohue: Yes, so there is research coming. Most of the research is looking for evidence of technology being a problem, so there is already a bias in the literature around addiction, let’s prove that these things are addictive, so I worry a little bit about that. We have some new research that has really aggregated lots of studies and lots of data that has been pulled together, and finding interestingly enough, that there is a slight negative effect of screen time on a child. It’s very slight, very small, and it’s so slight that it’s not really any more problematic than the child eating potatoes, the headline that came out recently, too many potatoes isn’t good either, so where is the moderation? Where is the balance, and I think that’s important.

What I would say to you is we need the research to provide the evidence. Those of us who think technology is great for kids and are excited about what it can do, we are hedging our bets, we don’t know. It could turn out that we are wrong about that. Those who are saying no technology and it’s a disaster could be wrong about that, or they could be right. I tend to think the answer is going to come somewhere in the middle. I also think that we are missing the individual child, so we are just throwing all 3-year olds in a bucket and saying technology is no good for 3-year olds but there might be a 3-year old who’s really ready for the technology and doing well with it, or a 3-year old where it is more of a problem. People want one answer but it is much more nuanced than that.

Kelly: Yes, it’s hard to navigate through this, so you are more saying that technology is good in a way if it’s more of an engaging thing rather than just throwing them in front of a screen and have them watch shows and things like that.

Dr Donohue: That’s a great question because that is that kind of passive versus active discussion that comes up. We all – you, me, everybody – spend some time passively in front of screens in our lives. We watch our favourite television show or whatever, so I’m not saying that passive viewing has to go completely away, but I’d really like to move kids along from consumption to creation, so using these tools as a tool for learning, for documenting their learning, for showing you what I know, for communicating with Grandma, all of these ways in which these tools are powerful is much more interesting to me than just popping them in front of a screen.

If we have an occasion to pop a child in front of a screen, then I’m wanting a highly interactive experience where the child is maybe sitting passively, but is not passive in terms of their intellect and their hands. They have to engage in order to participate. That’s at least a step in the right direction.

Can I ask you one question? Why do you feel like all the media is so negative on it then, and there is not more of the positive things? Do you think it’s just like a fear of the unknown? Why do you think it is?

Dr Donohue: I do track headlines and the ratio of alarming, fear-mongering things that are going to make parents feel guilty headlines are much higher than the stories we do get around what going on at the Montessori school in our community where they are using technology in a real interesting way, so we are not getting those stories. I would guess, as a non-media person, that that is pretty easy to understand. It gets more attention. It gets more headlines. The stories that we can tell tends to confirm for parents who are already nervous about this that see, I know we shouldn’t use this, so I think we need a more balanced story. Those of us who are working in the work that I do are trying to tell positive stories about how technology is being used as well, not just saying that it can be, so that parents can also see the other side to it, but too much of anything is too much. So too much screen time is too much and too much of anything else is, so parents need to have the whole thing in mind, and sometimes parents hear in the headlines you need to have balance in your media and thinking that it’s 50-50, it isn’t 50-50. Balance is when the media news fits into everything else you believe the child should be spending their time doing during their waking hours, then you’ve got balance. We are out of balance when technology takes over.

Kelly: Right, right. That’s an important point to make, and also the parents with the technology.

Kelly: Okay. So going into the education so Montessori for example, in general they don’t advocate the screen, so what do you think Maria Montessori today would say about technology and especially the first plane of development or second plane of development?

Dr Donohue: Yes, It’s a really fun question to imagine, but before I answer the Maria Montessori side of it, I will say that I am a firm believer that old child development theory can inform the new use of these tools. We ought to go back to Montessori. We ought to look at Vygotsky. We ought to see what Piaget had to say. They had a lot to say about tool use. It was a different type of tool. They didn’t even imagine this kind of tool but I think we can look for some guidance there.

I’m finding in my work that the Montessori community is opening up a little bit about this. It seems to be a program-by-program decision, but I think Maria would have loved these tools. They are didactic as the tools she designed. They can be used for a period of time towards mastery and put back on the shelf right where they are supposed to go so the next child can use them. I think she was curious enough intellectually and also committed enough in her own methodology that she would have said this is a fantastic tool for learning, bring it on. Let’s figure out how to use it.

Kelly: when you are comparing, when you are going back in time, when we grew up, it was don’t sit in front of the TV, it’s not going to be good for you, would you compare those two things, technology and television, in terms of development?

Dr Donohue: We have to, because number 1, childrens’ screen time is predominantly watching television still. We are getting all excited about these other digital devices, but the data is pretty clear the most time children spend in front of the screen is the television, so that’s something we are familiar with. I was a child of the 60s. I watched way too much television by any measure and I think I turned out reasonably okay. I think we have to be reasonable in our thinking about it, but children today have many more screens than just that one TV. So this definition of screen time was a lot easier. It wasn’t necessarily easier to get me to turn it off, but it was only one screen we were talking about. How much television watching before Chip should do something else? Now it’s the phone, the tablet, the desktop computer at home, the television, all the screens that are in their world. It’s a much more screen-filled environment than it was before, and you asked earlier about the lure of the screen. Screens do have a lure for kids, and so the fact there are many more of them in their world I think really requires us to be more mindful than ever, but not afraid of screens. Embrace them but for the right reasons.

Kelly: So is there any study done on the correlation of using technology earlier and their IQ and development?

Dr Donohue: Yes, correlation is the important word here. The data that we do have, the studies we have seen sometimes finds correlation between technology use and obesity, technology use and outdoor play time, technology use and passive play versus active play, but it’s a correlation. Maybe it’s related. There is no causation as in if you use a computer, you will become obese, which is kind of absurd for me to say, but that’s the kind of headline that we get often times, so there’s not a straight line but for some children, the computer could barely draw them into a game world where they are playing and not wanting to be off the screen and that could lead to more passive activity or sedentary time. That could lead to problems with weight, so you can see where the chain could come from.

I always encourage parents and educators to be very careful of those headlines that suggest a causation, a causal relationship between child plays with iPad, child has this outcome, and that’s where some of the brain development…you asked about IQ…we don’t know. We are starting to find some threads that re interesting, but under what conditions, for what child, at what age and with what content does it have a negative outcome? So we are a ways away from being able to say definitively what that looks like. We have spent 40 years studying television and so we get confused by some of that as well.

Kelly: What do you think we still need to learn then about technology that we don’t know today?

Dr Donohue: You said something earlier that really caught my attention. These are tools that were not designed for children, but they are in their world so their parents’ smartphone, a tablet, a smart speaker or a voice-activated gadget, these were not designed for kids. Now the kids’ media developers were quick to scramble to put some things on these platforms that aren’t for kids, so there is a disconnect between the intent of the technology and what it fundamentally can do and what we try to do with some of the software and the games and apps. So I think it’s an interesting time for us to think about what are we doing with these screens, what’s different from what we know from before, what’s actually very much the same that we do have knowledge of from before, but we can’t ignore that the world is different. The multi-touch screen, that was a game changer for pre-schoolers and technology. Suddenly they could swipe and tap instead of having to use a keyboard or a mouse, which is a very cognitively challenging task for young kids, so the interface did open up immediately, but we didn’t sit around thinking can we create a multi-touch screen for kids. We thought about how to create a multi-touch screen for adults.

Kelly: Right. So you are saying that you don’t think that there’s a negative correlation to having the kids learn on the technology devices. It’s just more of the social aspects that they would be missing out by not engaging and forming their social skills as the main kind of ‘watch out’ with technology.

Dr Donohue: Yes, for me these are tools for learning and so that’s why I am excited about it, and why I keep studying it and talking about it. There’s an open-ended nature to this that is powerful and is new and is not like anything kids in previous generations have had, so I do think that we need to think about what are the potentials, what are the pitfalls. I would argue that we know the potentials better than we know the pitfalls, that we can imagine ways for kids to use these technologies in ways that are positive and that have outcomes that are good for them. We are in the 21stcentury. Parents are concerned about the children having the skill sets that they will need as adults. I always like to remind parents that we need to focus on them right now, like today. They are 3 year olds today. Yes, a 3 year old that uses technology may be developing some familiarity or some skills that will carry them well into the future, but I don’t need to have 3-year olds coding so they can be programmers at 21.

Kelly: Right. Get a little job man to be around.

Dr Donohue: Right

Kelly: Anything else that you think parents need to know, or that you would recommend for parents, tips for managing their childrens’ technology use?

Dr Donohue: Absolutely!  I might start with the one to be more mindful of their own media use, particularly in front of children. Children are watching. You are the number one media role model for a young child. They look up to their parents and they figure that’s the way to use media, so I do think parents need to be mindful. They need to find opportunities to engage directly with their child, use technology together. We always can’t be sitting side-by-side with our child, but we can be asking a question from the other side of the room, from the kitchen while we are preparing dinner and make it a more dialogic experience. Tell me what you’re doing now. What choices are you making? What’s happening in the game? I like to say to parents and then the big question is what are you going to do when we turn it off, which foreshadows for a child – and they are not going to like itwhen the time actually comes – but it foreshadows for a child that a time when we are using the technology and a time when we are not.

But that seems wrong to children when there is never an OFF for their parents, so Mom or Dad’s smartphone is always on and they are always looking at it. They are always checking messages and yet I just get my 30 minutes, so I think we have to think about that. I think they have to trust their instincts. They know their child really well. They know their goals and their dreams and aspirations for their child really well. It might feel like they don’t know these new tools. That’s going to come, but in the meantime, trust your instincts. You are the parent and you can make good choices here. I think we spend a lot of time bashing parents, shaming parents into thinking that they aren’t competent in the digital age and they aren’t ready to help the children with this. I think that’s a shame because the parents start to feel like they can’t control this. There is nothing I can do about this, but a parent who feels like they can make choices and have a healthy media environment in our home, we can live well with media in our home and define that for ourselves, that’s a much more positive situation and now – full circle – a child who is watching a parent who is in control and has a plan and has rules and limits, but also has opportunity is learning that that’s the way you use media, not that it’s xxxxxx.

Kelly: Right. there’s no clear cut answer, it’s sort of individual. It’s hard to have one answer

Dr Donohue: I think we continue to learn about opportunities that are positive. We continue to learn about customs and concerns. Parents ought to be paying attention to that, but my advice is to embrace the digital age that we all are now living in. we didn’t grow up with these tools but our children are. Let them show us how to use them sometimes. Let them be the teacher. When something won’t work on your tablet, take it to your 4 year old and ask them to fix it. They’ll have it fixed in no time, so if adults are willing to let that role be reversed sometimes and recognize that 4 year olds that this is their world and we are just visiting, that can be really positive and we can give some opportunities for empowerment to the child as well at the same time.

Kelly: That’s great. I think this is very interesting. It doesn’t make it any less confusing, but it’s great to know.

I appreciate you sharing all your research and giving us a broader perspective. Like you said, everything is so negative, the positive ways we can use it with our kids, so thank you so much.

Dr Donohue: Oh, thank you for the opportunity

 

About Dr. Chip Donohue

Chip Donohue, PhD, is a Senior Fellow and Member of the Advisory Board of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, where he co-chaired the working group that revised the 2012 NAEYC & Fred Rogers Center Joint Position Statement on Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Chip is the editor of two books, Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years: Tools for Teaching and Learning (2015) and Family Engagement in the Digital Age: Early Childhood Educators as Media Mentors (2017), co-published by Routledge/NAEYC. In 2012 he received the Bammy Award and Educators Voice Award as Innovator of the Year from the Academy of Education Arts & Sciences. In 2015, he was honored as a children’s media Emerging Pioneer at the KAPi (Kids At Play International) Awards.

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