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'Screen Time' Alone Too Limited a Gauge of Early Learners' Tech Use, Report Says

Dig-Girls-Desktop.jpgEveryone from parents to teachers to physicians continues to worry about how much time children are spending in front of computer screens.

But in the mobile-and-apps age, considerations of what types of technology use are "developmentally appropriate" for young children need to be more nuanced, taking into account what type of media is being used, for what purpose, and with whom, according to a new report released Tuesday by the RAND Corporation.

"Technology use is not monolithic, and the definition of developmentally appropriate use should reflect and accommodate the wide variation in possibilities that technology offers," according to "Moving Beyond Screen Time: Redefining Developmentally Appropriate Technology Use in Early Childhood Education."

The report is the second of five on the topic of technology and early education planned by RAND, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit.

Researchers from the organization recommend six factors that should be considered when determining what is developmentally appropriate: 

  1. Whether technology is "purposefully integrated to support learning" as part of a larger curriculum that also includes offline activities.
  2. Whether it is "solitary or taking place with others"—an issue that researchers say is particularly important given the importance of social interaction for young children's learning.
  3. If technology use is "sedentary or mobile"—i.e., providing opportunities for active play, and thus hopefully not contributing to concerns about childhood obesity and related issues.
  4. Whether the content and features of media are "engaging, interactive, and educational," as well as developmentally appropriate (e.g., no violence or adult themes.)
  5. If children are using devices that are developmentally appropriate.
  6. The extent to which "total screen time" still falls within reasonable parameters.

The goal, the RAND researchers say, is that "simple, clear guidance" for early-childhood providers as well as regular demonstrations of how technology can be appropriately used with early learners will help ensure that children are exposed to developmentally appropriate technology more regularly.

And even though screen time as the sole measure of what's OK for children is no longer adequate, the RAND researchers argue that screen-time limits shoudn't go the way of the VCR:

Limits on screen time may remain important in restricting use that is passive, sedentary, or noneducational, and they may also prove useful in ensuring that children engage in a balanced combination of activities.

However, a more-comprehensive definition of developmentally appropriate technology use will empower ECE providers and families to make better decisions about the ways in which young children use technology--and help maximize the benefits young children receive from this use.

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