Nursery Management

Is Exposure to Screen Technologies Harming Children in the Early Years?

Richard House discusses the latest controversies surrounding screen time…

I often use the term ‘paradigm war’ to describe what’s currently happening in England’s early childhood sector, and Exeter University’s Professor Liz Wood coined the same term nearly a decade ago now, in a memorable academic paper that has certainly stood the test of time. And it’s perhaps no coincidence that it is exactly 50 years ago this year that the seminal book thrusting the term ‘paradigm’ into everyday usage was first published – Thomas Kuhn’s iconic text The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

This ‘paradigm war’ most often manifests around the issues of the nature of early learning itself (unhurried, or Early Learning Goals-driven?), assessment (to assess or not, via the EYFS profile scores and the new two-year-old test?), and whether or not there should be an imposed statutory framework for early childhood. As if this wasn’t enough ideological conflict to keep us all going, another issue that has repeatedly reared its head since the mid-2000s is that of ICT and related screen technologies in early childhood settings – specifically, do they have a place there, or not? With the seemingly relentless march of the iPad into the nursery now well advanced, and with the commercial interests supporting its introduction claiming its pedagogical benefits, it is surely time to take another long hard look at these controversial trends and claims.

Thankfully, the issue has come strongly into the public sphere in recent months, with the publication of two key texts that take an unapologetically sceptical viewpoint on the appropriateness of screen technologies in early years settings: the new report Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology and Early Education, published by the pressure group the Alliance for Childhood; and Dr Aric Sigman’s latest foray into the debate with his new research paper published in the academic journal Archives of Disease in Childhood. According to Sigman’s own research, it seems that the statutory imposition of ICT practices onto the preschool sector in England was floated in 2007 in the lead-up to the introduction of the EYFS in 2008, but it was ultimately placed in a ‘guidance’ category. Nonetheless, ICT sceptics (like myself) view that guidance as decidedly toxic: for example, that children up to the age of three (quoting from the EYFS guidance):

● seek to acquire basic skills in turning on and operating some ICT equipment;

● note how children use the control technology of toys, for example, a toy electronic keyboard;

● talk about ICT apparatus, what it does, what they can do with it and how to use it safely.

According to Sigman, the revised EYFS of 2012 remains a comprehensively pro-technology framework for children from birth onwards, and he is clearly on a crusade to reverse it.

Let me declare my own ideological position. I’ve stated on many occasions that there are major dangers involved with introducing ICT experiences to young children, whether considered from philosophical, pedagogical or developmental-research perspectives. And if there is any possibility that ICT technologies are indeed harmful for young children’s development and learning, then it seems to me that the case is unarguable for adopting a strict precautionary principle to be exercised in making decisions about the extent to which children are exposed to these technologies.

I would urge all nursery professionals to read the Alliance for Childhood document and inform themselves of the arguments around digital and screen technologies and early childhood experience. What seems crucial is that every professional who’s responsible for young children’s wellbeing takes the time to inform themselves of the range of arguments on both sides of this ideological divide, and to come to their own informed viewpoint. Don’t take either my own or the pro-ICT advocates’ word for it – make you own decision based on the evidence, and then be able to argue it authoritatively with the parents who place their children’s wellbeing in your hands.

Richard House is an early childhood campaigner, a trained Steiner Waldorf Kindergarten teacher, and a founder-member of the Open EYE campaign, the Save Childhood Movement and Early Childhood Action. Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)