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Benefits and risks of ICT use in early childhood

© UNESCO/Marilyn Jeffrey

20.06.2014

by Mami Umayahara, UNESCO Bangkok

Today it is common to see toddlers and pre-schoolers watching video, playing games on tablets or surfing on internet. In the Republic of Korea, 93% of children between 3 and 9 years of age go online for average 8 to 9 hours per week[1]. As younger and younger children are exposed to ICT, there are concerns among researchers and parents alike over the safety of ICT use by young children as well as their effective use for their learning.

Early childhood refers to the period from birth to 8 years of age. We now know from research that significant brain development occurs during early childhood and 75 per cent of brain development takes place during the first six years of life. We also know that good nutrition, positive stimulation, affection and a safe environment influence how the brain cells connect; the brain architecture is thus literally shaped by the quality of environment, particularly the child’s interactions with other humans. And once developed the brain is much harder to modify, and developmental delays before age 6 are particularly difficult to compensate (see Figure).

 

Research findings on effects of ICT use in early childhood, except those related to television, are sparse and quite divided. In the words of John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and the author of Brain Rules for Baby:

I have never seen messier research literature in my life, particularly regarding brains, behaviors, and video games. Even a cursory review of the work that’s out there reveals shoddy designs, biased agendas, lack of controls, non-randomized cohorts, too few sample sizes, too few experiments – and lots of loud, even angry, opinions[2].

On the other hand, there seems to be little strong opposition against the 2011 policy statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics that discourages media use by children younger than 2 years because of:

  • no evidence supporting educational or developmental benefits for media use;

  • potential adverse health and developmental effects; and

  • adverse effects of parental media use (background media) on children.

Moreover, some potential risks for young children are repeatedly pointed out, including:

  • physical and ergonomic safety risks due to prolonged usage or repetitive motions, such as  musculoskeletal injuries, visual strain and myopia, obesity and other complications of a sedentary lifestyle, and possible risks of radiation exposure;

  • exposure to harmful contents, such as violence and sexual content, commercial/advertising content, and gender and cultural stereotypes;

  • invasion to children’s privacy, by inadvertently exposing their personal data online or their families posting videos and photos (including fetal ultrasound images) and creating their digital footprints even before their birth!

These are real and serious concerns and applicable to older children and even adults. However, many of these risks are preventable if children’s ICT use is properly supervised and the duration is limited.

Siraj-Blatchford and Siraj-Blatchford (2003), for example, recommend children should use computers in short spells, and children under 3 years should use not more than 10 to 20 minutes at a time and children under 8 years not more than 40 minutes.[3]

Some educationalists and parents are concerned about children’s isolation from social interactions or ICT displacing other play and learning activities. In response, what literature points to is the critical importance of the adult’s role and developmentally appropriate use of the tools. This means that safe and effective use of ICT in early childhood largely depends on the knowledge and skills of parents, guardians and practitioners (e.g. preschool teachers).

In fact, when used judiciously, ICT can support different aspects of learning and development processes of young children, including language, creativity and problem-solving skills. Children can also play and learn together using ICT, which can foster their ability to communicate and collaborate. Moreover, ICT facilitate more personalized learning and thus can diversify and increase learning opportunities for every child, including children with special educational needs.  The benefits of ICT in children’s learning and development are particularly high when applications are educational, play-based, free of harmful contents and stereotypes; encourage collaboration, allow children to be in control of their learning processes (see more in the Developmentally Appropriate Technology in Early Childhood, DATAC, in UK[4]).

As online security problems and antisocial behaviours (e.g. cyber bullying, game/internet addiction) become well known and wide-spread, we are becoming more aware of the need to foster digital citizenship through safe and responsible use of ICT. We must recognize the critical importance of early childhood in this. It is during the first years of life when the child’s brain is developing at an incredible speed and they are acquiring new knowledge and skills in their environment, particularly through interactions with people around them. In so doing, important social and emotional development takes place, and habits and core values, such as empathy, peer social skills and emotional control, are formed – much before they start school (see Figure). Again, it is possible but more difficult to modify these habits and values later in their life. Therefore, providing parents and families as well as early years practitioners with information and guidance on safe and effective use of ICT is critical not only to promote these young children’s safety and optimal development in early childhood but also to prevent future problems when they grow older. 

Learning begins at birth (World Declaration on Education for All, Article V).

The author of this article, Mami Umayahara, is a Programme Specialist for ECCE and Programme Cycle Management Specialist at UNESCO Bangkok.


[1] Cited in Holloway et al. (2013) Zero to Eight: Young Children and their internet use.

[2] John Medina (2010) Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five.

[3] Siraj-Blatchford, I. & Siraj-Blatchford, J. (2003). ICT in the Foundation Stage: A Position Paper. Northamptonshire County Council.

[4] Siraj-Blatchford, J. & Whitebread, D. (2003). Supporting ICT in the Early Years.