Experts explore intersection between digital technology and early childhood

[img_caption src=”” align=”right” caption=”Sherry Turkle and Chip Donohue” alt=”photo of Turkle and Donohue”]Erikson Institute’s inaugural President’s Council program featured a discussion between two experts on the implications of digital media for both children and parents.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., and TEC Center director Chip Donohue, Ph.D., spoke about the effect of technology at the event.

Technology can’t teach empathy

Dr. Turkle, founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, spoke about research from her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

[img_caption src=”” align=”right” caption=”Sherry Turkle, Ph.D.” alt=”photo of Turkle”]Studies in the last 10 years have begun to show startling numbers of children who exhibit characteristics illustrating a lack of empathy. She noted that toys and apps that attempt to have children express their emotions are a poor stand-in for human relationships.

“There’s nothing positive that can come from pretend empathy,” Dr. Turkle said.

When a child hears a story read aloud by an app, he misses out on the personal connection, she said. “What are we taking away while we’re giving them more words?”

Dr. Donohue agreed. “The question facing the education community is whether concerns raised about children using devices can also be solved through technology. We have to find the right balance.”

“We don’t know all the answers about these devices but they’re here,” he added. “We need to figure out how to use them appropriately.”

Learning language through relationships

Both Drs. Turkle and Donohue are wary of apps and toys that promise to increase children’s vocabularies.

[img_caption src=”” link=”” align=”right” caption=”Chip Donohue, Ph.D.” alt=”photo of Donohue”]“Toddlers don’t learn language well or at all from a screen,” Dr. Donohue said, “but if they’re interacting with a grandparent on Skype, they’re learning from Grandma, not the screen.”

Dr. Turkle admitted that it’s not always easy to talk to young children, but that’s not an excuse for parents to escape into their email.

“You have to put yourself into their world,” she said. “If we don’t do that, we’re denying our children the necessity that they need. Conversation is the most humanizing thing we can do for our children and for ourselves.”

Preparing better teachers

Dr. Donohue also noted the lack of teacher education focusing on best practices surrounding technology.

“We’re not preparing teachers well to integrate digital media in classrooms,” he said. “That’s our responsibility at a place like Erikson.”

Technology tips for parents

  • “We can use technology but we have to keep it in its place,” Dr. Turkle says. Create “tech free” spaces and times at home. For instance, make a rule that no one can use a device at the dinner table.
  • Remember that activities with children have deeper implications than what’s on the surface. Reading to a child isn’t just about vocabulary, Dr. Turkle says, it’s about creating a nurturing and interactive environment for her.
  • “Families who play together learn together,” Dr. Donohue says. When children do use technology, make sure you’re participating in the experience. Ask questions like which game they’re playing, why they chose it, and what their objective is.

For more information on the President’s Council, contact Randy Holgate, vice president for institutional advancement, at (312) 893-7110.

Learn more about Erikson’s TEC Center