Evidence for Learning: Digital technology

Digital technology

The summary below presents the research evidence on digital technology in the Australasian context.

The Early Childhood Education Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of communication and language approaches on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on communication and language approaches. In contrast to the Early Childhood Education Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by early learning professionals and young learners. This information is valuable for early learning centres interested in finding out more about particular examples of communication and language approaches that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

CoLab (a partnership between Telethon Kids Institute and the Minderoo Foundation) generated this evidence summary in July 2019.

Children are using digital technologies at increasingly earlier ages (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013), with access from birth, and no memory of life before the internet (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008; Tapscott, 1998). The digital age brings new opportunities, including the potential for digital devices and interactive media to be used as a tool for teaching and learning with young children (Donohue, 2015; Zabatiero, Straker, Mantilla, Edwards, & Danby, 2018). In doing so, we can help ensure young children have the skills to succeed in a digital society and become well-informed, safe and responsible digital citizens (Donohue, 2015; Holloway, Green, & Stevenson, 2015; Zabatiero et al., 2018).

A study of children aged 3 – 5 years from pre-schools in Queensland Australia examined whether the use of touchscreen tablets was correlated with emergent literacy skills (Neumann, 2014). It found that children’s level of letter sound knowledge and name writing was related to having access to a tablet at home. No correlation was found between time spent using a tablet and emergent literacy skills. There is a risk that ownership of tablets may be correlated with other factors that boost early literacy, the authors called for more empirically designed research to test whether use of tablets has a causal impact on early literacy skills (Neumann, 2014).

It is important that adults working in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings ensure appropriate digital technology use by and with’ young children (Mantilla & Edwards, 2019). For instance, it is suggested that digital media content and devices can be used in ways that help children to engage, explore, express or imagine, and facilitate meaning-making, collaboration and problem-solving (Early Childhood Australia, 2018; Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, 2012; Guernsey, 2012). As a case example, an Australian study found that viewing of a YouTube video in a preschool classroom has the potential to be a thoroughly interactive learning experience, facilitating opportunities for communication and turn-taking between a child and their teacher in response to the video, to arrive at a shared understanding of its meaning (Davidson, Given, Danby, & Thorpe, 2019). Relatedly, a study of 103 Australian children aged 3 to 5 years found that the introduction of digital animation in the preschool classroom can potentially transform the nature of children’s play through facilitating imaginary and role-play in a digital form (Fleer, 2017).

Australian guidelines suggest sedentary screen time is recommended to be limited to no more than one hour per day for children 2 – 5 years of age (Australian Government Department of Health, 2017). Educators working with young children should ensure the wise use of digital technologies to minimise potential musculoskeletal risks, including modelling correct postures during tablet use (Howie, Coenen, Campbell, Ranelli, & Straker, 2017). This recommendation is predicated on the basis of a study of 10 Australian children aged 3 – 5 years from the Perth metropolitan area, which found that use of mobile touchscreen devices poses unique musculoskeletal risks and can contribute to increased sedentary behaviour and reduced physical activity among young children. Whilst this laboratory-based study was limited by a small sample size, due to an intensive measurement protocol, it nevertheless suggests that non-screen toy play should be encouraged among young children as an alternative to screen time (Howie et al., 2017).

Research on young children’s use of technology is in its infancy, with the rapidly changing nature of technology making it difficult to measure its effects over time. Although evidence in the Australasian context is limited, international research also indicates that when used appropriately and with engaged adults, technology holds considerable potential for supporting children’s learning and development.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). Children and media tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved from https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/news-features-and-safety-tips/Pages/Children-and-Media-Tips.aspx

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2013). Internet activity, Australia, December 2012 (Cat. No. 8153.0). Canberra. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/8153.0Main+Features1June%202013?OpenDocument

Australian Government Department of Health. (2017). Guidelines for healthy growth and development for your child: Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for the Early Years (birth to 5 years). Retrieved from https://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/FCE78513DAC85E08CA257BF0001BAF95/$File/Birthto5years_24hrGuidelines_Brochure.pdf

Davidson, C., Given, L. M., Danby, S., & Thorpe, K. (2019). Talk about a YouTube video in preschool: The mutual production of shared understanding for learning with digital technology. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 39(3), 76 – 83. https://doi.org/10.1177/183693911403900310

Donohue, C. (2015). Technology and digital media in the early years: Tools for teaching and learning. New York: Routledge.

Early Childhood Australia. (2018). Statement on young children and digital technologies. Retrieved from http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Digital-policy-statement.pdf

Fleer, M. (2017). Digital role-play: The changing conditions of children’s play in preschool settings. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 24(1), 3 – 17. https://doi.org/10.1080/10749039.2016.1247456

Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. (2012). Framework for quality digital media for young children: Considerations for parents, educators, and media creators. Retrieved from http://cmhd.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Framework_Statement_2-April_2012-Full_Doc-Exec_Summary‑1.pdf

Guernsey, L. (2012). Screen time: How electronic media from baby videos to educational software affects your young child. UK: Hachette.

Holloway, D. J., Green, L., & Stevenson, K. (2015). Digitods: Toddlers, touch screens and Australian family life. M/C Journal, 18(5), 149.

Howie, E. K., Coenen, P., Campbell, A. C., Ranelli, S., & Straker, L. M. (2017). Head, trunk and arm posture amplitude and variation, muscle activity, sedentariness and physical activity of 3 to 5 year-old children during tablet computer use compared to television watching and toy play. Applied Ergonomics, 65, 41 – 50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2017.05.011

Mantilla, A., & Edwards, S. (2019). Digital technology use by and with young children: A systematic review for the Statement on Young Children and Digital Technologies. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 1 – 14. https://doi.org/10.1177/1836939119832744

McClure, E. R., Chentsova-Dutton, Y. E., Barr, R. F., Holochwost, S. J., & Parrott, W. G. (2015). Facetime doesn’t count”: Video chat as an exception to media restrictions for infants and toddlers. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction, 6, 1 – 6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijcci.2016.02.002

Neumann, M. M. (2014). An examination of touch screen tablets and emergent literacy in Australian pre-school children. Australian Journal of Education, 58(2), 109 – 122. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004944114523368

Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of Digital Natives. New York: Basic Books.

Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up digital (Vol. 302). San Francisco: McGraw-Hill Companies.

Zabatiero, J., Straker, L., Mantilla, A., Edwards, S., & Danby, S. (2018). Young children and digital technology: Australian early childhood education and care sector adults’ perspectives. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 43(2), 14 – 22. https://doi.org/10.23965/AJEC.43.2.02

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Early childhood education; young children; digital technology/​technologies; screen time; digital media.