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In a digital world

Are risks even relevant when this is the world children live in now?

We live in a rapidly changing world.

Some education literature does take the view that digital technology is so important, digital literacy needs to come first, before health concerns. "Rather than starting with the question 'how do we keep children safe', media literacy educators step outside the boundaries of a harm-or-not paradigm to ask, 'how can we help children become literate in a digital world," (Donohue, 2015). 


With evidence showing that moderate and balanced use of digital devices can be effective for improving educational outcomes and digital literacy, extremes seem unnecessary. 

The exceptional circumstance of lockdowns and learning from home that occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic brought this point into further question. Digital devices allowed access to education and continued learning for many students. However, along with benefits, many students struggled with online distractions and motivation.


One potential hurdle to developing guidelines for the safer use of digital technology in education, is the view that technology is changing so quickly that we can't look to evidence when making decisions. However, there is a large and growing body of evidence on this topic. This view has also recently been challenged by Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer. While referring to regulation of social media, his comments apply to other areas of technology. “People in government need to reject the notion that somehow technology is so fast moving or magical that they can’t keep up.”


Another common pushback is that children need smartphone and ubiquitous device access, and that we just need to teach them how to self-regulate, as this is what they will have to do as adults in a digital environment.


It is very important that our children learn to be responsible users of smartphones and other devices. Some experts advise that this should be addressed at high school level.


But there's a problem with teaching kids to be responsible users or asking them to sign contracts, and then expecting that they will use their devices for learning purposes only. Kids and teens have a lower ability to control their impulses.


The brain's area for impulse control, self-regulation and planning - the prefrontal cortex - is not fully developed until around the age of 25. As the cortex develops and children begin to gain self-control and regulation skills in other areas of their life, their ability to self-regulate screen time will also improve. This doesn't mean that responsible device-use shouldn't be addressed, it means having realistic expectations and boundaries for our kids as they develop.


Conversely, research has shown the more time children spend on screens, the more they use them later in life, and the more difficulty they have turning them off when they become adults.


Children respond to digital technology differently, and parents are the best judge of their own children. Children's personal recreational device use is a family decision. Parents who are struggling can access these resources:


AAP family media plan

Netsafe online safety plan


We live in a digital world, but young people can make the most of the opportunities that digital technologies offer to learning, with balanced and purposeful use of screens in schools. If you have concerns, talk to your child's teacher or principal, and you can share this website for further information.


References not included in hyperlinks:

Donohue, C (Ed.), Technology and Digital Media in the early years: Tools for teaching and learning. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print.

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