Children and technology: is it about time?

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Children and technology: is it about time?
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Professor Andrew Manches, Professor of Children and Technology, Director of the Children and Technology group, The University of Edinburgh

Andrew Manches urges a proactive stance on children’s screen time, stressing an understanding of digital impact, and advocating mindful adult role models.

What is the right amount of screen time for children? This question and its many variations are ubiquitous, yet deeply problematic.

The influence of technology is dependent upon multiple interwoven factors. What experiences, interests, or understanding do children bring? What apps are they using? When, where, and importantly, with whom are children interacting?

Navigating the screentime dilemma for children

Instead, we could start with more tractable questions, such as how do digital interfaces influence how children interact? While the history of children’s digital interaction echoes the evolution of technologies themselves, there was clear step-change with the advent of touchscreens. Mobile phones followed by tablet devices made interaction so much more direct, intuitive, and accessible, welcoming a new generation – children in their early years – to this new landscape.

Touchscreens created a wealth of new opportunities for play and learning, but simultaneously, new risks. Children could be connected to information and other people at any time or place, making them vulnerable to new forms of persuasion, bullying peers and malevolent adults. Children’s attraction to these new devices raised vociferous concerns about the time they spent on them. Were children ‘addicted’?

The line between enjoyment and addiction is often blurred, but negative impact is clearly key. Numerous harms have been attributed to children’s digital use: reduced outdoor play, increased obesity, and declining creativity. Yet, dig deeper and such concerns lack evidence; causal claims are disingenuous. Unfortunately, fears for children and technology often reveal more about the way adults romanticize their past and worry about the influence of technology in their own lives. Such anxieties can fuel hypocrisy, and arguably our first step for children is to critically reflect upon our own digital interaction as role models.

Unfortunately, fears for children and technology often reveal more about the way adults romanticize their past and worry about the influence of technology in their own lives.

Technologies therefore often tap perceptions of ourselves and childhood as much as the devices themselves; and it is interesting to consider the questions raised by emerging technologies – those that extend interaction beyond touchscreens, which are ultimately ‘sliding pictures under glass’. Novel interfaces including gesture recognition, haptics, tangibles – or augmented reality – offer more direct, whole-body digital interaction; enhanced by increasing capacity to capture and respond to our most intimate data.

Such seamless interfaces prove a powerful market for children. Consider the growth of Smart Toys, which are digitally enhanced to the extent they are becoming intelligent play partners. Predictably, such toys raise tremendous ethical and safety questions. They also present harder questions about the evolving meaning of fundamental childhood concepts such as play, physical experience, social engagement, or the value of adult support.

It is understandable that the size and velocity of new questions raised by new technologies for children can be frightening. Perhaps most significant are those concerning the amount of data being harvested without children’s consent (which requires understanding) or transparency of how it will be used and by whom. Yet, there is also a danger in dystopian visions of technology in children’s lives – the risk that discussing these possibilities increases their likelihood.

Guiding children through technology

We can share interests and concerns with children and have confidence in our capacity to guide them through this evolving world. We can draw upon expertise to better protect children from our fears, while helping them become independent in protecting themselves for the future. And we can spend less time agonising over problematic questions about which design and how much time is good for children, and instead, spend more time envisaging – with children – future designs that may enrich their lives. It’s not simple and I should stop writing; I’ve had my screen time.

Professor Andrew Manches is Professor of Children and Technology and Director of the Children and Technology group at The University of Edinburgh.

This article originally appeared in ReSourcE Winter 2022.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.