Today’s pre-schoolers are now growing up in a screen-saturated world. They often learn to tap, swipe and pinch before they’ve learnt to grip a pencil, tie their shoelaces, or ride a bike.
So what can families do to help prepare their children for the digital future they’ll inherit? No, you don’t need to be teaching your pre-schooler how to code or touch type before they walk through the school gates. These are skills and concepts that they will certainly be introduced to in the early years of primary schooling, but they aren’t pre-requisite skills or competencies that we need to pre-teach. Instead, parents of pre-schoolers need to teach them how to use technology in healthy and helpful ways. Developing good digital habits from the start will enable children to foster positive and powerful relationships with technology (and not become a slave to the screen, as many children and adolescents now find themselves).
Parents need to establish firm, consistent boundaries with technology before children start school. Pre-schoolers certainly need limits in terms of how much time they spend with digital devices (I’m yet to meet a parent who isn’t somewhat concerned with screen time); but we also need to establish boundaries around what, when, where and how kids use screens to ensure that their screen habits support, rather than stifle, their learning and health.
Unfortunately, many kindergarten and prep teachers and allied health professionals throughout Australia are raising concerns that pre-schoolers’ tech habits are interfering with their basic developmental needs and priorities. For example, there are mounting concerns that if pre-schoolers are spending excessive time with screens, then they’re not getting sufficient physical activity. When children are physically active, they develop fundamental movement skills such as rolling, skipping, swinging, climbing and bouncing, which helps to develop their vestibular systems (this gives them a sense of balance and this is what allows them to sit still on the carpet or on a chair and pay attention). However, the increase in young children’s sedentary activity levels, now means many children are not developing their vestibular systems, resulting in an inability to balance and sit still – and it is these children who are being misdiagnosed as having ‘attention issues’.
We do have government guidelines regarding recommended amounts of screen time. Whilst it’s critical that parents enforce limits around how much time children spend with devices, what’s more important is to examine the ‘opportunity cost’. What are young children missing out on when they’re spending time with screens? Is screen time interfering with their basic developmental needs being met, such as sleep, play, social interaction, physical movement and language skills?
The use of high-quality, educational content for young children to use on digital devices has been shown to support their learning. There is a wealth of developmentally-appropriate learning apps, TV programs and interactive toys that have been specifically designed to foster young children’s learning and development. Nosy Crow, Toca Boca, Duck Duck Moose and ABC Kids are examples of quality app developers for pre-schoolers. Common Sense Media and the Australian Council on Children and the Media both offer reviews of apps, TV and movie content suitable for young children.
Establishing boundaries around when screens can be used is vital. The 60-90 minutes before sleep time should be screen-free, as the blue light emitted from tablet devices and smartphones delays the onset of sleep (books, audio books, music, or even TV are much better alternatives to small, handheld devices). Rapid-fire, fast-paced screen action should also be avoided before school, as it overloads the sensory and nervous systems, making it difficult for children to pay attention in class.
Identifying no-go tech zones in your house is critical from a young age if we want to help our kids develop healthy technology habits. I recommend bedrooms, play areas, bathrooms and cars (for short trips) as tech-free spaces, along with meal areas (always eating in front of a screen displaces opportunities for language and social interaction and has been shown to promote mindless eating in children).
With increasing rates of young children presenting with myopia (near-sightedness), musculoskeletal issues (like ‘tech neck’) and the risk of noise-induced hearing loss (from using ear-bud headphones that exceed recommended decibel levels for children), it’s essential that parents help their children use screens in ergonomic ways and ensure that screens aren’t used excessively.
Technology is a wonderful tool that can support our kids’ learning, if it’s used appropriately and in intentional ways. Developing healthy tech habits from the start ensures our kids can leverage the benefits it offers; and minimises any potential harmful effects.
Dr Kristy Goodwin is a digital parenting speaker, researcher and author of ‘Raising Your Child in a Digital World’ and mum to two boys (and yes, they do throw techno-tantrums). Kristy helps parents and professionals ditch their guilt and guesswork when it comes to raising young kids in a digital world, by arming parents with facts, not fears.
You can find answers to more of your ‘digital dilemmas’ here www.drkristygoodwin.com.
Use the promo code “BTS20” to get 20% off Kristy’s video seminar for parents of preschoolers at https://drkristygoodwin.com/about-plugged-in-childhoods/ or a copy of her eBook ‘Raising 2-5 Year Olds in a Digital World’ here https://drkristygoodwin.com/about-raising-2-5-year-olds-in-a-digital-world/.