31 August 2018
Under 8s across Europe and beyond are growing up in media-rich homes and public areas yet access to, and parents and teachers’ understanding of, digital technologies various enormously, say researchers.

A new Policy Brief, launched today (August 31) at the European Early Childhood Education Research Association (EECERA) conference in Budapest, is based on extensive research conducted by leading researchers in the field across more than 30 countries in Europe and beyond.

Director of the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre at Lancaster UniversityReader in Digital Literacies in the Department of Linguistics and English Language Dr Julia Gillen and Lecturer in Education at Strathclyde University Dr Lorna Arnott worked together coordinating the Policy Brief entitled ‘Digital Literacy and Young Children: Towards Better Understandings of the Benefits and Challenges of Digital Technologies in Homes and Early Years Settings’.

Focusing on the available research on under 8s pan-Europe they identify that while excellent opportunities are made possible through digital technology to support toddlers and children in learning and developing their creative, social and critical qualities, parents and teachers are receiving mixed messages about new technologies and often lack confidence in supporting its effective use.

The Brief highlights that depending on parents’ own experience and expertise with digital technology they are more or less likely to see either benefits or risks of its use.

The researchers suggest parents should be encouraged to get more involved with their children’s use of technologies helping them to play and learn together.

The Brief identifies an urgent need for more research in this rapidly changing area, especially into the Internet of Toys. These are toys which can connect directly to children, and are wirelessly networked with other devices.

The IoT raises concerns about how children’s information is stored, treated and shared. Simplistic opt-in/opt-out choices transfer legal responsibility for the collection, analysis and distribution of children’s data to parents and this effectively gives commercial entities authority to continue and conceivably expand upon data-collecting and sharing procedures.

The researchers flag up a privacy issue too, warning parents to be wary of sharing a family’s personal details in registration forms and advises keeping details to a minimum.

Again the Brief calls for more research into the IoT – looking at how to reap the benefits of its use in play and learning while guarding against potential threats to wellbeing.

The Brief calls for policy makers to ensure schools and pre-schools have very clear and dynamic, regularly-reviewed policies on the use of digital media to support children’s learning with appropriate staff training including the use of new technologies.

Children, too, have a part to play, says the brief. Guidance should not always be directed at adults. Children should be given the opportunity to reflect in their own media use and, with support from parents and teachers, make decisions about their own technological engagement.

Dr Gillen, who co-chairs a working group for DigiLitEY, an EU COST Action Programme which focuses on digital literacy and young children, said: “This Policy Brief summarises what we know at the moment about digital media and our youngest children, at homes and in pre-school and schools. 

“The main message for parents is that they need to keep talking to their children about what they are doing. We have known for decades about the benefits of reading together and the same is true when screens are involved.

“For policy makers, there should be more action to support educators and parents working together and more research into opportunities to benefit children’s learning as well as investigate areas of concern.”

The policy brief was jointly produced by DigiLitEY, COST Action IS1410 funded under the Horizon 2020 programme and the Digital Childhoods Special Interest Group of the European Early Childhood Research Association.