Experts, educators split on whether preschoolers should be using digital devices
30th Oct 2016
It is a question almost every Australian parent will ask themselves: at what age should children be allowed to use digital devices?
Most children are able to navigate smart phones and iPads long before they can read or write, and some preschools have brought digital devices into the classroom and made them part of the curriculum.
But there are concerns about the long-term effects these devices may have on young children’s brains.
Deborah Boyd’s four-year-old son Joey goes to a preschool where digital devices are as important as paint brushes and building blocks.
With a tap and a swipe, the three- to five-year-olds in Joey’s class can paint, listen to music and create their own virtual story puppet show. Joey can even use simple coding to move a robot.
“It’s too late now to say that children shouldn’t be using technology,” Laure Hislop, director of KU Killara Park Preschool, says.
“The reality is that they are and our aim is just to use it well.”
Ms Hislop has been teaching young children for more than 35 years and is behind this preschool’s move into the digital world.
“It’s not about using technology for the sake of technology. It’s just another piece of equipment in our preschool,” she says.
Chip Donohue is one of the United States’ leading early childhood academics and has briefed the US Congress on the use of technology in preschools.
“Every child walking into an early childhood program has been born in the digital age so we need a positive disposition, we need the knowledge, skills and experiences that will help children in the digital age,” Dr Donohue says.
But he warns technology should be used carefully.
“I want to see teachers who are very thoughtful about it and figure out when it belongs and when it doesn’t,” he says.
‘We’re conducting a living experiment’
Kristy Goodwin, children’s technology and development researcher at Macquarie University, is not against using digital devices in preschool, but thinks we need to be careful.
She warns that overuse could cause near-sightedness, poor posture and affect fine motor skills.
“As a researcher, it pains me to say that we are in some respects conducting a bit of a living experiment,” Dr Goodwin says.
“We don’t yet know what the long-term impact of touch-screen technology is on young children.
“I always say err on the side of caution. We’ve got no research evidence yet that says dunking kids in the digital screen early on will yield long-term benefits.
“Between the ages of three and five there’s a whole lot of brain architecture being established.
“We know that 90 per cent of a child’s brain is developed in the first five years of a life, which is quite staggering, and we know that between the ages of three and five brain development is focused on this prefrontal cortex.
“This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for developing children’s impulse control, so we need to be really careful that their use of screens isn’t diminishing their ability to develop this part of the brain.”
‘You’ve got to get that balance right’
At Steiner preschools there is not a digital device in sight.
“We want the children to learn about the world through real experiences, not through a screen,” Steiner Education Australia chief executive Tracey Piraccini says.
“There is no research to suggest that using technology in preschool will really help their learning. In fact, we think it has a detrimental effect on their learning because it delays language and also social skills.”
But does this deny children important skills they will need in future?
“No, because whatever you might teach a child today about technology in early childhood, by the time they are in year 3 and by the time they are in high school it will be old hat, so we don’t believe we are denying them anything.”
Child psychiatrist Philip Tam says there is a risk of being overexposed if smart devices are at preschool.
“If you add up the total amount of hours, for example a few hours in the evening at home and a few hours in the preschool setting, if you total that up you could get to quite a significant sum,” Dr Tam says.
“Overexposure can definitely lead to dependency issues later on if it’s allowed to go unchecked.
“They must make sure that the screen use done in those preschool settings it not to the detriment of real life activities.
“In other words you’ve got to get that balance right.”