Over the past decade there has been escalating concern that the time children spend using digital technology might be harmful. Calls have been made to protect children by restricting the amount of time they spend in front of digital screens. But recently there has been a change in tune, following research showing that the effects of screen time on children may be too small to warrant such restrictions.
In other words, we don’t have enough evidence to inform policy on child screen time. These views were echoed in an inquiry into the impact of social media and screen-use on young people by the UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee. They highlighted methodological and practical issues with existing research, such as misinterpreting small effect sizes and focusing on statistically significant rather than meaningful effects. Similar concerns were reported by UNICEF Innocenti in an evidence review from 2017, which called for an improved research agenda in this field.
As expressed in a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, the pleasure children derive from digital technology is often seen in a negative light by adults; even though they would agree that digital technology is important for living a full life and developing one’s potential. Rigid screen time rules may have deprived countless of children of freedom to pursue their interests in a digital world. Parents have been put in the role of policing rather than coaching children’s digital engagement.
Children have an extraordinary capacity to learn and develop when motivated by genuine interest and provided the right opportunities. Cultivating their intrinsic motivation – through education or play – is critical for learning outcomes. As Roger Hart writes in an essay on children’s participation published by UNICEF Innocenti in 1992, “much of play is a training ground for later participation with adults in work: learning the properties of materials, developing physical skills, exploring tool use, and social cooperation.”
For these reasons, play is enshrined as a fundamental right of all children. It is recognised as being essential to the development of creativity, imagination, self-confidence, self-efficacy, and a range of social, cognitive and emotional skills. Digital technologies can facilitate this development, albeit in new ways that older generations may not yet fully appreciate.
Today virtual platforms and social networks forge new cultural environments for play and artistic opportunities that can broaden a child’s horizons, provide opportunities to learn from other cultures and traditions, experience autonomy, and contribute toward mutual understanding and appreciation of diversity.
In other words, we don’t have enough evidence to inform policy on child screen time.
This autonomy, where children and adolescents participate and make their own choices, express their own views, and take responsibility, is not a binary state, but rather depends on a young person’s evolving capacities – maturity, skills, and abilities. Therefore, a delicate balancing act needs to take place – between a child’s right to be protected, and their right to have progressive autonomy in making decisions about their lives. Unfortunately, Hart notes, children are the least listened to members of society and have limited opportunities for genuine participation, in part because adults underestimate their competence. Moreover, opportunities for free play with peers are declining due to a combination of forces: fear for children’s safety, parents’ work patterns, and growing pressures for academic achievement.
This is highly relevant in contemporary debates around children’s use of digital technologies. Digital media has become the primary means through which young people play, communicate, receive, create, share information, and express themselves. Young people explore their identities online, access health information and sources of advice and counselling, learn about their rights, report abuse or violations, express opinions and engage civically and politically with governments and the world around them. The internet has become a powerful vehicle through which young people can overcome forms of discrimination or exclusion, to participate and be heard in meaningful decision-making processes, and exercise rights on their own behalf.
However, nearly 30 years after Hart’s essay, the barriers that prevented children’s play and participation in the 90s still prevail, now limiting children’s rights and freedoms in the digital environment. In making a case for a UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) General Comment on Children’s Rights and Digital Media, researchers argue that in order to shift adult thinking on the digital environment, children’s rights (including to participation and play) must be emphasized within popular and policy debates around digital technology.
A rights-based perspective on children’s engagement with digital technology is useful for at least three reasons:
- It makes clear the need for integrated perspectives: All of children’s rights need to be considered together, meaning that the right to protection from harm cannot supersede the rights to participation, privacy, play, education, freedom of information or expression.
- It emphasizes that children should be consulted on decisions concerning their use of digital technology: Article 12 of the UNCRC states that children have a right to be heard in matters that concern them, and that their views should be given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
- It acknowledges the obligation to ensure that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration in all actions concerning the child: Article 3 of the UNCRC calls upon all actors to ensure that children’s beset interests are at the heart of these conversations. To achieve this, guidance and policy needs to draw on children’s own voices and experiences.
By consulting with children on how to best balance their use of digital technology, we could help them turn digital technology into a tool for creative expression, participation, play or learning. Schools could teach children how to search for high-quality information and distinguish fake news through their mobile phones. In doing so, they will be training children to use technology purposefully while negotiating and overcoming its distracting elements. Learning how to stay focused on a task despite technological interference will likely be an important skill in the future.
Piaget found that children learn best not by unequivocally accepting what authority tells them is right, but when, through discussion and cooperation, they can form their own views and reach consensus. As Hart states, when seen in this light, children’s participation is not just an approach to developing more socially responsible and cooperative youth; it is the route to the development of a psychologically healthy person.
Daniel Kardefelt-Winther is UNICEF Innocenti’s lead researcher on child internet use, online safety and child rights.