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Technology and children: A calm approach to a hot-button issue

Child blowing dandelions in a field (photo credit Johannes Plenio)

There was a child went forth every day,

And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became;

And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,

Or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

- Walt Whitman, "There Was a Child" in Leaves of Grass

PCWS was fortunate to host Joan Almon, Director of the Alliance for Childhood and longtime early childhood educator, for a talk on how we can raise fulfilled children in the 21st century. Questions about children and technology were, not surprisingly, a focus of the evening. Here are some of Joan's thoughts on how to calmly manage technology use for 21st century children.

Some might be surprised to hear that Joan’s first response was not to ban the idea of technology for children, given her background as a Waldorf early childhood educator--Waldorf schools are famous for being no- or low-tech. What Joan said instead was:

First things first.

Child lying on floor, playing with cell phone (photo credit: Hal Gatewood)

Children need to start with learning what it is to be a human being, standing in the world, connected to the earth, reaching out to other human beings. Give children a hands-on, multisensory, three-dimensional experience of the world that includes time in nature and rich relationships with other people. Then, technology can enter their lives, in appropriate ways.

Joan reminded us that there are some concerns about the impact of early use of technology on sleep and eating habits, as well as concerns about its relationship to hyperactivity.

One child holds phone while other looks over his shoulder at the phone (photo credit: Tim Gouw)

But what about our neighbors and friends? It seems like screens are everywhere. How do I keep my children on a low-media diet?

Remember that it’s ok for your family to be different from everyone else, to not have iPads, to watch less TV, etc. Let your kids know from a young age that we don’t do what everyone else does. It’s a lesson that will serve them well when they are older. And try talking to your neighbors about how you are trying to raise your child. It’s ok to say what your values are.

What if my child has a passion for something, and it involves technology? Then is it ok?

If kids have a passion, it’s ok to feed it, for example, buying a digital camera for a budding photographer. But is it really a passion, or just something they are trying out for now?

Maybe start with a disposable camera, or a brief loan of your old camera, before you invest in something more.

What about educational television programs? Are those ok?

Two babies play with a tablet computer (photo credit: Jelleke Vanooteghem)

Educational television programs are not necessarily bad, but all shows tend to involve more drama and crisis than children need to see. Be aware of what they are watching. And keep in mind that the most important thing is for your children to build connections to other human beings and to the physical world. Caring for something real—in the backyard or a terrarium, for example—is a better way to learn about the world than seeing a show on plants or animals.

I'm not ready to eliminate screens. What's a good approach to maintaining a lower amount of tech use?

Put technology use into the rhythm of the day, so it’s not a constant battle. Perhaps it's a half-hour before dinner, or an hour on Saturday morning. Find what works, and make that your regular time, so you don't have to answer the constant, 'Can I play on the iPad now? What about now?'

Little boy holding a cell phone to his ear

When is it ok for a child to have a phone?

The new thing is to wait until age 12. But at that age, do kids need a smart phone? There are good reasons to get a phone for a child, such as for safety as they travel around town, but it consider whether it could be just a phone, without bells and whistles.

What about the adult use of technology around children?

Managing our own relationship with digital world is also important. Joan said she now sometimes hears children complaining about their parents’ phone habits. We must consider the example we are setting for our children when we can't be without our phones.

For more on this topic, check out the Alliance for Childhood's publication, Facing the Screen Dilemma, available for free at their website.

#EarlyChildhood #Technology

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