I’ve been researching technology’s role in child development for nearly twenty years. For most of that time, whenever a non-researcher asked me for the verdict – is tech good or bad for kids? – I dutifully replied that it’s complicated, because it is.
And as research continues to accumulate, one could argue things have only gotten more complicated. Sure, we’re starting to get some clearer signals, such as the relationship between social media and mood disorders among adolescents, but all the caveats and conditionals remain.
When I became a parent six years ago, I quickly realized that all the complexity I had embraced as a researcher wasn’t particularly helpful to me as a parent. How was I supposed to translate “on the one hand, on the other hand” into an acceptable number of daily Paw Patrol episodes for my son, Oliver?
The conflicting impulses associated with my roles as researcher (yay for complexity!) and parent (give me something concrete!) motivated me to write Technology’s Child. In writing the book, I sought to look at what research had to say about technology’s role in the full arc of child development, from toddler to twenty-something, and whether there was any overarching, practical insight that I could distill.
Through my synthesis of the sprawling research on kids and tech (the book includes 672 footnotes covering 86 pages), I developed a framework that answers the question: When does technology support child development, and when does it not?
I argue that digital experiences that are self-directed and community supported are best for children’s healthy development.
Self-directed technology experiences place children in the driver’s seat of their digital interactions. Children, and not technology, are in control. Some examples of self-directed digital experiences include: a drawing app that takes kids to a blank canvas and lets them decide how to fill it; a game that allows children to progress at their own pace and perhaps even create their own worlds; video tutorials that help a young person develop skills in an area of personal interest, such as cooking or music.
Community supported experiences are supported by others, either during or surrounding a digital experience. Examples of community supported digital experiences include: a parent who joins in with their child as they play an alphabet game on their tablet, then extends the learning by pointing out items around the house that start with the letters introduced in the app; friends and/or family members playing video games together; a teen who finds a supportive community online where they feel comfortable and supported in exploring a marginalized identity.
Despite its simplicity – maybe even because of it – this framework allows room for the complexity of the topic, which is important to me as a researcher. For instance, I discuss in the book how one size does not fit all when it comes to evaluating whether or not a digital experience is developmentally supportive for a particular child. The characteristics of individual kids and the specifics of their surrounding contexts matter a lot. A teen with a heightened vulnerability to anxiety may find it more difficult to engage in self-directed experiences on social media than a teen with no such vulnerability. On the other hand, if that vulnerable teen has a supportive community of peers and family members surrounding them, they’ll be better positioned to experience self-direction in their digital interactions.
Design matters, too. Some designs are more supportive of healthy development than others. Features such as infinite scroll, auto-play, and algorithmically curated feeds make it difficult to engage in self-directed digital experiences because of how easily they co-opt a person’s attention. Design can also influence how easy or difficult it is for families to participate in joint media engagement, as well as the likelihood that a teen will experience a supportive community online.
As a parent, I find myself using the framework daily to assess Oliver’s digital experiences and to guide my decision making around his tech use. By asking, “Is it self-directed? Is it community supported?”, I feel like I’m putting the research to work for my specific situation and my individual child. The complex becomes concrete, and I have a better sense of when to turn off Paw Patrol.
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