Digital Media and Early Child Development

Editorial by Paul Kieniewicz

Anyone visiting their child’s classroom today will be impressed at how the computer, and other digital media have established themselves as teaching / learning tools. A recent New York Times article, How Google Took over the Classroom, relates how much of this advance is driven by a war between Microsoft and Google for dominance in the education field. But are the children the unwitting victims of this war? Do they really benefit from digital media?

Exposure to multimedia begins ever earlier.

The NYT article concedes that education is changing as a result of digital media.

Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education — prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas. It puts Google, and the tech economy, at the center of one of the great debates that has raged in American education for more than a century: whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable citizens or skilled workers.

But do children learn better as a result of digital media, or is their education compromised? Several studies indicate that digital media interfere in the learning process in children as early as two year olds.

A recent study of 1,077 toddlers by Julia Ma of the University of Toronto suggests that the toddlers who use tablets or smart phones show significant delays in speech development compared to those that do not use digital media. What about laptops in pre-school? Do they help or hinder how a child learns to read and to write? For centuries, learning to read was associated with handwriting. A child learns to write by using their hand to form letters and words. It’s not the same as typing. Forming an “a” is different from forming a “b”, whereas typing the letters requires pretty much the same movements. Does this matter? According to a study by L. Longcamp  and a more recent study by Markus Kiefer , children who learned letters in the traditional way learned to read faster than those who learned by typing. The authors of the latter study say,

Our work clearly demonstrates that the easiness of the motor program associated with typing on digital devices does not facilitate written language acquisition compared with handwriting training: In none of our test tasks, children of the typing training group showed superior letter recognition, reading, or writing performance compared with children who received writing training based on handwriting.

Does digital media interfere or assist with learning in the primary school? Four studies quoted by Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, show that children with access to Google retain information less well than those without such access. Why take the trouble to memorize when you can look up the information? The same studies also show that information easily obtained also tends to be easily forgotten, all of which prompted Nicholas Carr to ask, in a 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, Is Google Making us Stupid?

The above studies pose important questions on how digital media may be negatively affecting the development of toddlers and young children. While Google and Microsoft are locked in a war over the spoils to be reaped from education, the needs to the children are disregarded. The direction of education is driven by digital and economic considerations rather than the requirement to help children think creatively and feel empathically — two basic components of an education.