Should technology be used with young children?

Girl with MP3 player

Toddlers don’t have cell phones—yet—but there’s no getting around the fact that information technology is reaching younger and younger audiences. Whether that reach holds promise or threat for young children isn’t clear.

Recently, we sat down to talk about it with Erikson’s director of distance learning, Chip Donohue, Ph.D., early childhood educator, father of two, and one of the world’s foremost experts in the innovative use of technology for early childhood teacher education and professional development.

Let’s go right to what, for many people, is the central issue: Should technology even be used with young children? A number of organizations and individuals say no, among them the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. You disagree?
It’s a complex issue. I have enormous respect for the work that Susan Linn [founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood] and others are doing, and I completely agree that we need to protect our children from all kinds of commercial influences. But I do worry that taking a “no technology” stance prevents young children from having important experiences in an increasingly technological world and educational system.

We all take absolute positions when we’re trying to make a point. But absolute positions aren’t always realistic. The AAP says, “no screen time for children under 2,” but how many screens are we talking about now compared to when that statement was written, when we were thinking only about television? At this point, we’re including showing a toddler a digital image of him or herself on the camera, or viewing photos on the computer screen. Do we really want to prohibit that?

If you want to say to me, “Really be careful about technology for kids under 2, and here’s why,” I am listening. But I worry that recommending that children in child care, preschool, and kindergarten settings have “little or no exposure to screen technology” guarantees that some children who do not have access to these technologies in the home will enter school without the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to succeed in a technological world.

And what happens to the achievement gap, which we’re already worried about, when a child grows up in a technology-rich home and in a technology-rich preschool environment and goes to school tech ready for first grade and the child who’s had none of this shows up? Today the divide is being marked not just by what children know but by what they are able to do. We should rather be promoting media literacy for young children and modeling safe, appropriate, and commercially neutral uses of existing and emerging technologies.

Girl, computer, and phone

You’re a senior fellow at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. What kind of work are you engaged in with the center?
I’ve been involved in a number of webinars and in the Fred Forward Conference, “Creative Curiosity, New Media, and Learning.” We’re working on the design, development, and deployment of the Fred Rogers Center Early Learning Network, a web-based environment whose initial focus is on the importance of conversation in the development of early literacy skills. The site is intended to support parents and teachers/caregivers in finding and sharing resources and effective practices, with an emphasis on how technology and media can support adult learning about child development.

Right now, we’re working on building an editorial/advisory board, identifying and courting content partners, and working with a design firm to create the environment. We’re also bringing together an evaluation team. Co-chairing the working group that is revising the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) position statement on technology and young children is also part of my role as a Rogers fellow.

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NAEYC Position Statement on Technology and Young Children

What is NAEYC’s position on the subject?
NAEYC believes that early childhood educators have a responsibility to critically examine the role and impact of technology on children and to be prepared to provide guidance on the appropriate use of technology. We need to rewrite the statement because it was last written in 1996. In ’96, the total focus was on computers and classrooms. The landscape has changed considerably since, not just with respect to the kinds of technology but with respect to the reach of technology beyond the classroom and before the classroom—the whole debate about infants birth to age 2 versus young children 3 to 5.

What should Erikson’s role in all this be? We lead the field in early childhood not because we create a great course for students who come to our campus but because we create conversations in the wider community.
The huge need, the national need, is in professional development. We need to do a better job preparing teachers and those who work with young children to use technology effectively. Generally speaking, if a teacher’s good at technology, it’s not because she or he was prepared in her program. It’s because that teacher likes technology and some parent bought a computer for the class. And we should use technology to teach about technology, we should model technology.

How would do we do that? How would you do it at Erikson, for example?
I would create a space in this building, an environment for new media and technology, an adult play room where people who work with kids can come and engage with new technologies, try them out and evaluate their potential. The iPads came out? Okay, you have this new interface, what might the impact of it be on children?

Whether that space is a center for the effective use of technology, I don’t know. The important thing is creating a place that leads to articles, leads to research, leads to 28 teachers teaching. It’s having a place to come and play, come and try, come and talk to other people who are trying to figure these things out.

If we empower teachers and other practitioners to make better decisions about technology, then they also become advocates with parents who come to them and say, “What should I do?”

We use technology so widely in our daily lives. Why aren’t we incorporating it into the curriculum for teachers?
Because we don’t want to take on the debate. We don’t want to raise the question of should we even use technology, so instead we just kind of quietly don’t. I’ve always called us a low-tech, high-touch field.

Toy phone

There’s an interesting dynamic, a dichotomy between, “These kids are born digital, we better help them,” and, “We better play and paint and hug and hold and get in the sandbox with them.” Well, those aren’t mutually exclusive to me.

We are all using technology. We’re walking around with smart phones, the most sophisticated little package of technology that has ever been designed, and we know how to use them. We’re getting our email, we’re online, we’re checking the bus schedule, we’re on Facebook, whatever. The disconnect is, we’ve never thought about how that same technology could be used in our work with children, because we fundamentally aren’t so sure it should be.

That’s the other challenge, incidentally. At home, or in our pockets or our purses, we have something that came out weeks ago. Schools are looking at computers and software that are 15 years old and don’t work. Part of the problem of technology is the cost of staying current. It’s extraordinary.

How many schools or preschools even have technology?
We’re going to have some data soon on that from a survey of the NAEYC membership around how teachers are using technology. Anecdotally, we would say there’s lots of technology in schools, but it’s out of date and not being used, or it’s in a lab and you get your 10 minutes a week, which was our notion in 1985 of how computers fit in to the classroom. We’re still acting on that notion.


The Pew Internet and American Life study is providing us with interesting data about access to technology in this country. One set of data that jumped out at me—and this is particularly as it relates to my work at the Rogers Center—is that people are skipping home computers and going straight to a mobile device. They want access, but they don’t want to pay for two services and two plans. So, how do you deliver content on that 3-inch screen instead of that TV-sized screen?

Are teachers and other early childhood professionals aware of that disconnect between their daily lives and their work with children?
When I talk about that, I get, “Huh, I hadn’t actually thought about that, but you’re right.” A study was done in 2007 on license-exempt child care providers in Illinois, and it turns out there were tons of computers in their homes and they were very good at using them: buying books, buying movie tickets, printing maps, what have you. But they never once thought about using that technology to connect to professional development or to each other, and they complained of feeling “isolated” and all that.

We can either say, “That’s their problem,” or we can say, “We need to fill that gap.” That’s another role for Erikson, in my opinion.

You’re obviously a fan of technology. But what about people who just aren’t comfortable with it?
You say “technology,” but for me it’s tools. And when it comes working professionals in the field, I’m sorry, it’s 2010, you’ve got to learn how to use these tools. I think we have a professional obligation to challenge ourselves, to think hard about why and how and what.

Being a “fan,” incidentally, doesn’t mean I don’t see the pitfalls. Walking home one day, I saw a mother and child at a restaurant, having a little lunch. The “story” I wrote about it in my mind was “mom and child having a special lunch together.” But the reality was mom glued to her phone and daughter absolutely not a part of anything.

The question is, Can we use technology as a tool to reconnect children and adults? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an intriguing idea.