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Modern technology and childhood learning - a background Discussion Paper for the Victorian Children's Council

 Don Edgar August, 2012

The starting point for any discussion about how children develop and learn has to be the family. Parents, siblings and conditions in the family home are the basis of all learning - language, self-awareness, relating to others, physical, cognitive and social skills. How that family responds to a child sets the parameters for all learning and development. We usually recognize this in relation to early childhood, but it is no less true for children at later ages; the family continues to exert a powerful influence on learning, values and social relationships even as they move beyond the home into child care, school and wider community settings.

But today's world involves much more than physical contacts beyond the home; it brings global influences into the home and takes the child beyond the family's limited social networks to a virtual (and no less real or powerful) world.

So if we define the task of childhood as 'learning to find your way around in the world', then the mass media and the tools of modern technology take on new significance; they take every child well beyond the intimate confines of the family home to a wealth of life experiences that potentially help them 'find their way around' and discover who they are in relation to the wider human family, their social and physical environment. Just as good literature does, the new media provide a range of visual, verbal, emotional, social and even physical modes of dealing with the world. They also offer a pervasive set of commercial values and ethical codes of conduct which may not be what is needed for good citizenship in the digital age.

Parents and social commentators are justified in expressing concern about the possibly negative and damaging consequences of exposure to new forms of technology, but we need to remember that reading was a new technology seen as dangerous by the political elite, comics and radio were regarded as a potential cause of moral breakdown, TV has for over half a century been attacked as the cause of violence without any good research justification and the latest 'moral panic' over social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) is in the same ballpark.

The research on new media is inconclusive, badly designed, with small samples and often based on behavior in a laboratory, not an ordinary life setting, subject to 'publication bias' (positive or neutral findings are less likely to get published), with findings exaggerated and over-hyped by the mass media. Linking a mass shooting with a new Batman film or with having played violent computer games makes for a good story but illuminates nothing about how new technologies are changing the lives of today's children.

We should be asking better questions - about exactly what children are doing with the new media, what they are learning from it (both positive and negative), how it is affecting their physical and social development and what else they are doing besides, or alongside, using such new tools. It is not a zero-sum game.

The worst example of distorted thinking is Britain's Baroness Greenfield, a neuro-scientist who has made repeated claims for the past five years that 'the human brain is under threat from the modern world', technology apparently 'causing' a decline in empathy and social skills, 'an increase in people with autistic spectrum disorders', with computer games causing 'dementia in children' and broadly 'reducing the quality of life'. She has done no research in this field, is not an expert on media effects, cites no sound research by others to support her assertions and refuses to properly define what she sees as the problem. Academics in the UK have called on her to put up or shut up, yet she persists with her alarmist critique.

'Her hypothesis seems to be that an unknown level of use of some subset of technology could harm our brains, and may already be damaging large swathes of society that may or may not be limited to children, although possibly only with obsessive use.' As The Guardian's Martin Robbins (25 Feb 2012) puts it, it is 'trivial and banal to say using social media (Twitter) obsessively 'might reduce your quality of life' ... doing anything obsessively might.'

What does the research show?

First, we may well be surprised at findings on simple media use, regardless of 'effects':


-          Children under the age of 4 are the heaviest viewers of television in the family, viewing on average a total of 5 hours 48 minutes per day

-          In the LSAC study, 4 year-old children watch on average 2 hours a day and spend 47 minutes using a computer, plus 23 minutes listening to a radio (Baxter & Hayes, 2007)

-          Taking all forms of media-related activities, the average time use for 4 year-olds is 208 minutes (3 hours 28 minutes) per week day and 171 minutes (2 hours 51 minutes) per weekend day. (For comparable US figures, see Kaiser Foundation, 2007)

-          An ACMA survey of media use (2008) found that children 0-4 spent 154 minutes per day viewing free-to-air television (127 minutes on commercial channels) and 194 minutes per day watching subscription TV. That makes a total viewing time average of 5 hours 48 minutes per day for our youngest children. Comparable figures for 5-12 year-olds were 130 minutes for free-to-air and 160 minutes for subscription TV, a total of 4 hours 50 minutes per day.

-          Obviously, average figures hide the massive amount of viewing by children at the upper limit of the normal distribution curve. This is far too much time for young children who need a rich variety of physical and social experiences for healthy development at this age.

-          There are variations by SES (less time for children whose parents have higher education and gender (girls less than boys), and children whose mothers do not work outside the home watch more TV than those of employed mothers. But the LSAC study warns against one-way causality, pointing out that non-working mothers also spend more time with their children talking, playing games or coloring in, and those with brothers and sisters spend less time on achievement-related activities anyway.

-          UNESCO warns of a growing 'digital divide' where children without access to the new, interactive, creative technologies will lack the cultural competencies needed in the new digital world of democratic citizenship participation. (Crawford, 2011; see also the UK's new 'Citizenship Curriculum' based on media literacy.)

-          The ACMA study found 39% of parents expressed some concern about their child's internet use, but benefits were reported by 96% (citing learning and educational opportunities, computer and communication skills, keeping in touch with friends and connected with what other people are talking about in the media.) 80% of parents claimed they can manage their child's internet usage and trust the child's judgment.

-          Computer-based games are used more by boys than girls but usage declines as they move into the teenage years, to be taken over by social networking activities and games that involve multiple players and are thus more 'social' than lone-player games.


There are many studies claiming negative effects on children from media use, especially of violent video games, mainly from the early 2000s (see Gentile, 2003) A meta-study of 130 research reports (Anderson, 2010) found (across all classes and cultures) 'exposure to video game violence does increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors and decreased empathy and pro-social behavior', but these were 'not huge effects' and were 'just one risk factor' and 'easier to deal with than poverty or genetic traits as causes of violent behavior'.

Many of those studies were small-scale laboratory observations and offered no data on real life behavioral effects. For example an Indiana University study on 'brain changes', claiming 'an increase in emotional arousal and a corresponding decrease of activity in brain areas involved in self-control, inhibition and attention', had only 44 teenagers playing two games, and one brain scan.

More recent assessments have been more cautious.

A TechAddiction report (2010) by Brent Conrad says, 'Despite three decades of research on the effects of violent video and computer games on children, there seems to be as much confusion as ever. Do video games lead to increased aggression and violence? Do video games cause violence, or do those already with a propensity for violence choose to play games with aggressive themes?' It is probably a pointless question anyway.

Most such studies are lacking in scientific validity and Ferguson et al (2010) write that 'trait aggression, family violence and male gender were predictive of violent crime, but exposure to violent games was not... in fact, playing violent video games is associated with higher visuo-spatial cognition.'

Even the claims of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (No. 91, March 2011, 'Children and video games: Playing with violence') are based on 'exposure to violence' in real life, extrapolating to the effect of video games, admitting that 'children with emotional, behavioral and learning problems may be more influenced by violence.'

Respected UK researcher David Buckingham comments: 'The debate we are seeing is very similar to the one that has raged for years about television. The truth is there are many factors that can lead to violence, such as being withdrawn and isolated, so it's hard to say it is because of one thing.'

More careful research has focused on the actual learning outcomes of playing games.

-          Games have been found to develop many cognitive skills in children aged 0-8 : to attend and concentrate; to associate words and symbols; to perceive and discriminate; to identify similarity and difference; to classify objects; to see order and relationships; to develop concepts of space, size, shape; to explore and be curious; to manipulate; to use creative imagination.

-          Overall, computer games have been found to teach children about:

?  Cause and effect relationships

?  Long-term winning versus short-term gains

?  Creating order from seeming chaos

?  Second-order consequences

?  Complex behavior systems

?  Counter-intuitive results

?  Using obstacles as motivation

?  The value of persistence (Prensky, 2006)

As the Federation of American Scientists put it (2006) 'games offer attributes important for learning - clear goals, lessons that can be practiced repeatedly until mastered, monitoring learner progress and adjusting instruction to learner level of mastery, closing the gap between what is learned and its use, motivation that encourages time on task, personalization of learning, and infinite patience.'

The American Montessori Association insisted, some years ago, that since media technology was now so pervasive in the lives of children its teachers should incorporate activities in the kindergarten curriculum which treat media in the same way as other forms of everyday experience within the Montessori framework. They now embrace iPads, digital cameras, the internet as a means of engaging the child's active exploration of the environment and are critical of overly-didactic DVDs such as 'Baby Einstein' and the more passive apps often marketed to parents of young children. (See Children's Technology Review, 6 June, 2010). In Australia, one Deakin University pilot study (Age 31 July, 2012) found that pre-schoolers aged 3-6 who use interactive video games, such as Wii, have better motor skills (kicking, catching, throwing a ball). They spend an average of three hours a week playing non-interactive games and two hours a week playing interactive games. And a Swinburne University study is planned (Dr Geordy Kaufman, ABC Radio National, Life Matters, 1 August, 2012) to test whether children react to and learn in the same ways when playing with computer apps and touch screen games as when playing with ordinary toys. They plan to measure levels of attention and social interaction, relative developmental benefits and levels of control, pointing out that children can today build blocks, paint pictures or play sports using technological apps, and that 'being obsessed' can just as easily be applied to playing with blocks as to playing on an iPad.

Social media effects

So far, there is little good research on how social media such as Facebook, MSN or Twitter affect children's behavior, but the same extremes are reported. Some claim 'virtual' contacts are taking over from 'real' friendships, that young people who use Facebook are more 'lonely', more likely to be self-critical and depressed than others. This, when we know 96% of college-age students use Facebook and (2009) 12-14 year-olds are the highest child users at 48%. So who are the 'others'? and where is the research? US researcher Larry Rosen (2011) summed up the research so far by saying some studies demonstrate 'narcissistic tendencies, health effects (anxiety) and distraction from learning', but positive effects for Facebook/social media users include 'better virtual empathy, helping introverted adolescents learn how to socialize and providing tools for teaching and engaging students'. A Texas study (2008) found a positive impact on life satisfaction, social trust, civic participation and political engagement' and a Taiwan study (2011) found social networking had a positive impact on classroom learning.

The point to be made strongly is not simply that research 'effects' are unclear, but that these new media do occupy a lot of children's time and have changed the nature of social interaction, networking and the learning process. Just as reading changed the way most people were able to think and deal with the world, expanding their understanding and respect for diverse cultures and lifestyles (Pinker, 2011), so too it is likely the new media are changing the way children learn about and relate to their world. This may well involve 'brain' changes, given the brain's plasticity, but there seems little point in suggesting that any 'brain change' is bad for society.

In addition, what we know is that most children are not 'obsessed' by such media, though they are excited, intrigued and engaged by them. That is surely a positive for any child, especially those likely to be disengaged from normal schooling and without access in the home to ideas, discussion of social issues and specialized information.

The crucial issue for parents and educators is, perhaps, the quality of media content, quite apart from the amount of time children spend on media activities. Clearly, time spent on computer games just shooting and killing monsters may be fun but is hardly educational or edifying in a moral sense. But programs such as The Sims (a living dollhouse), Club Penguin (varied game-playing social activities), Roller Coaster Tycoon (creating a successful theme park), or Age of Mythology (historical content) are challenging and informative. Children love building virtual worlds and virtual playgrounds where they can create their own avatars and interact with others in new digital environments.

The same has always applied to children's television programs - they can be mindless time-fillers or engaging stories with characters who explore issues and situations in ways that expand a child's social and intellectual understanding. Parents and teachers can build on such media content as a 'scaffold' for learning, yet too often the message is that 'entertainment' is separate from 'education' and children should not be exposed. A related issue is, of course, the insidious association of many children's programs with commercial advertising, the marketing of products damaging to children's health and values that put self-indulgence ahead of social development and self-control.

Policy-making in this area is well behind the times. Education policy is rarely linked with communication policy (though the National Broadband project and the federal Government's 'education revolution' is a start in the right direction). And too often teachers lack the skills and interest in new technologies of their 'digital native' students. Futurelab's Lord Putnam claims students are forced to 'power down' when they enter the classroom to cope with teachers suspicious of technology and begrudging of its place in the schools.

We are of course in a time of transition with new media technology and cannot predict what the future holds. But it is already clear that children rapidly adapt, they are avid users at an early age of computer games, then move on to more social and interactive technologies as they mature. They multi-task in a way many adults do not understand, watching movies, talking on their mobile phone, playing a group interactive game, stopping and starting again to have dinner with the family or do their chores and picking it all up again with their friends. They are not talking with 'strangers' on Facebook, but using it as a tool to keep up with real friends and make arrangements for getting together, or sharing homework information, and are aware they can pretend to be someone else and keep parents out of the loop if they wish to. Above all, their 'virtual' friends are not a replacement for 'real' friends; they use the technology to maintain and deepen their everyday personal inter-relationships. The mobile phone is rapidly taking over from other desk-top computer screens and can be used for social contact, internet information, gaming and life organizing in ways not possible a decade ago.

Broader Political and social impacts of new media

Beyond the concerns of parents and educators about the 'effects' of media use on children lie much broader issues, such as privacy, monopoly control of information and political manipulation of ideas and debate. Our children face a world where such issues will loom large.

Facebook was started as a social contact/dating mechanism for elite university students. They could exchange information about who was good-looking and 'available', their courses of study, opinions about teachers, friends, their life interests and daily activities. Its expansion to other colleges was rapid, but its central requirement that no-one could access your personal details unless you had agreed to be a 'friend' remained; you had to give your own email address. It was rolled out carefully to other campuses, then to non-student adults, next to the professional workforce and, more recently to younger adults and children and is now a worldwide phenomenon (with 900 million subscribers). Inevitably it became a platform for self-presentation that could be manipulated and deceptive - you could lie about your age, looks, interests, skills, qualifications, other friends - and, as such, Facebook has encountered problems with cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying and misinformation. Young people often post information about themselves (including photos) that can be misused by predators and used against them in later employment situations.

It has enormous potential power in spreading critical comment about political leaders, a new movie, a restaurant or sporting event. 'Crowd-sourcing' can take the form of a spontaneous fun dance routine in a shopping centre or the mobilization of political protests as in the 'Arab Spring' uprisings.

Commercial businesses and public figures cannot ignore its value. As a source of information about millions of individuals and their personal tastes, purchases, interests and location, Facebook has become a major marketing tool, increasingly able to 'target' potential customers. It has become less of a 'friendship' network - indeed, what does it mean to have thousands of 'friends' on Facebook? - and more of a marketing tool. Critics argue that Facebook has less commercial potential than Google because its information about individual preferences and purchases is less direct (people go to Google to check out consumer products and sources) and the threat to privacy as Facebook consolidates personal information into 'profiles' is worrying.

Writer David Kirkpatrick suggests Facebook's definition of 'friend' is expanding. Whereas our traditional notion of a friend requires a bi-directional, reciprocal interaction, Facebook now involves three separate components of becoming a friend - 'declaring that you know them, giving them permission to see your own information, and subscribing to sell all the information they produce.' (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 312) So Facebook's algorithms on usage lead to more detailed profiles, a picture of a person's identity unprecedented beyond the close friendships of everyday life. It is already 'a giant experiment in personal disclosure' (p. 314) and Facebook is facing legal and ethical challenges in trying to guarantee user privacy while using its vast data pool for commercial purposes. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook's creator and majority shareholder) claims his vision is 'to empower the individual', to give them the tools to communicate and thrive in a global world and prevent them being overwhelmed by large government and commercial institutions. Yet he has, in fact, given such institutions the power to swamp and control the individual through selective use of information, personal profiling and identifying group interests and activities.

Some claim Facebook and other social media are changing not just our notion of friendship and identity, but also of 'community'. Certainly it can lead to a more global sense of community, as in mobilizing opposition to tyranny, developing a common interest in the environment and by breaking down ethnic, religious and social barriers. But it could just as easily lead to a reinforcement of 'tribal separation' if it comes to be used simply as a way of connecting more closely with those we already know. That was its original intention but it expanded to an unbridled sharing with 'friends' only remotely connected. Now it seems to be reverting to its original, instrumental purpose - to contact, share information with and reinforce friendships children (and adults) already have. After all, you don't have to 'friend' someone to obtain specialized information when the internet via Google offers that free of charge and free of any mutual obligations. The worry is that any use of the internet in this global market-driven age provides more information about the 'self' and our personal networks than we may safely be comfortable with. The mutual disclosure of self that lies at the core of modern intimacy (Giddens, 1995) may be even more volatile and dangerous when it is readily accessible to unseen masters of the universe. Shared intimacy is based on trust; an open system may not be trustworthy.

Even if Facebook restricted access to its data on individual users and, as its founder Mark Zuckerberg insists, ensured 'humans maintain mastery over technology' ... by ... 'helping the world's people self-organise' (Kirkpatrick, p. 325), Facebook has access itself to that data and is in itself 'a giant surveillance system'.

So too are Google and its rivals Bing and Yahoo, plus the new kid on the block Twitter. They all rely for profits on profiling users and their commercial potential. Both Google and Bing are trying to incorporate Facebook data on friends' activities into their profiling of user searches. Google also maps neighborhoods around the world via satellite and street cameras and can target ads about related products (including porn) to people searching the web from their local homes. The up side of this is the convenience of having GPS road map systems in cars, but the 'Big Brother' overtones are worrying to many people. Google is also digitizing the world's books, giving unprecedented access for the wider public to literature and specialized research papers. The internet has become the first port of call for global information searches and children and young people need to be guided towards more sophisticated skills in judging the worth and validity of varied sources (e.g. the dilemma of relying on Wikipedia versus unequal access to what used to be print-only specialized information).

The dilemmas of privacy versus surveillance and free access versus political control became evident in Google's attempted expansion into the giant potential market of China. Since 2000 Google has operated a free-access service from outside China but within the country government blocking of certain information (such as about the Tienanmen Square uprising and massacre, porn and political websites) via what was called 'the Great Firewall of China'). Microsoft and Yahoo operated censored Web sites in China, so Google's founders Brin & Page did 'an evil scale' (their company motto was 'Do no evil') and decided to build a China-based website, subject to censorship, on the basis it was better to serve Chinese users somehow rather than not at all. They invest philanthropically in genomics, alternative energy research and alternate means of giving users access where there is no electricity grid, but the commercial imperative inevitably drives many decisions that will affect how we live, learn and think.

In this light, it is my view that educators, parents and community leaders should be thinking harder about the global social and political effects of the new media and taking less notice of the exaggerated fears about 'media effects' on children. The most powerful effect is clearly that of giving more children access to information, ideas, opinions than they have ever had before; they are exposed to the world in ways we could not have imagined a quarter of a century ago.

We are starting to see a revolution in higher education, where tertiary students can complete online courses from universities around the world such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT. iTunesU is run by Apple, edX by the University of California, Udacity by Stanford's computer science faculty and newcomer Coursera is partnering with them and already has a million enrolments, including 7000 from Australia. (See Amanda Dunn & Katie Cincotta, 'Free courses from world's top unis a swipe away in online revolution', The Sunday Age, 12 August, 2012).

Many of our schools have embraced computer technology while others resist it, potentially exacerbating the 'digital divide' which already disadvantages many students from homes where such resources are lacking. The message for schooling is not that online courses will or should replace classroom teaching; rather that classroom teaching itself must adapt. The basics of literacy, numeracy and learning to interpret information will remain, for every student using online resources must be able to read and think clearly, but the teacher must become even more an inspirational, motivational leader in learning, able to guide students in more self-directed learning than we have ever seen before. Teachers have to be ahead of the digital game, not resistant to it.

What follows should be a stronger demand that the new media offer reliable information, clearly differentiate opinion from factual information, ensure a safe 'virtual environment' for children and safeguards against predators, protect better the privacy of all citizens and deny (insofar as it is possible) the use of personal information for purely commercial or political purposes. But above all we should be demanding that governments fund and commercial operators provide better quality content, so that children truly benefit in learning and development terms while being 'entertained'. That will only happen if education policies are linked with communication policies and if teacher training programs recognize and embrace the enormous learning potential of the new media, guiding students (not just through media literacy but through active use of the media in the classroom) towards more responsible and discriminating use of the time they spend.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are entirely mine, not those of other members of the Victorian Children's Council. The paper is intended as a Discussion Starter for consideration by the Victorian Children's Council. Don Edgar, 17 August, 2012.


Selected References:

ABS Cat. No. 4102.0, Children of the Digital Revolution, June 2011, and Online @ Home

ACMA (2008), Media use reports: No. 1, Internet use and social networking by young people; No. 2, Media use by boys and girls; No. 3, Access to internet, broadband and mobile phones in family households, Sydney

Anderson, C.A. (2003), 'Violent video games, Myths, facts and unanswered questions', Psychological Science Agenda, October

Baxter, J. & A. Hayes (2007), 'How four-year-olds spend their days: Insights into the caring contexts of young children', Family Matters, No. 76, pp. 34-43

Buckingham, David (2007), The Media Literacy of Children and Young People: A review of the literature on behalf of OFCOM, Centre for the Study of Children & Youth, Media institute of Education, University of London

Children Now (2007), The effects of Interactive Media on Preschoolers' Learning, A Review of the Research and Recommendations for the Future,

Conrad, Brent (2010), 'Ten conclusions about the effects of violent video games in the real world', TechAddiction, 7 Oct.

Crawford, S. (2011), 'The new digital divide', New York Times, Sunday Review, 11 Dec.

Edgar, Patricia (2006), Bloodbath, a Memoir of Australian Television, Melbourne University Press

Ferguson, C. & J. Kilburn (2010), 'Much ado about nothing...', Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 136, No. 2, pp. 174-178

Gentile, D.A. & C.A. Anderson (eds.) (2003), Media Violence and Children, Praeger

Giddens, A. (1992), The Transformation of Intimacy, Stanford University Press

Kaiser Family Foundation (2006), The Media Family: Electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their parents, California

Montgomery. K.C. (2007), Generation Digital, Politics, Commerce and Childhood in the Age of the Internet, MIT Press, Cambridge

Penman. R. & S. Turnbull (2007), Media literacy - Concepts, Research and Regulatory Issues, ACMA, Sydney

Pinker, J. (2011), The Better Angels of Our Nature Why Violence Has Declined,Viking

Prensky, Mark (2006), Don't Bother me Mum, I'm Learning, Paragon, Minnesota

Robbins, Martin (2012), 'The elusive hypothesis of Baroness Greenfield', The Guardian, 27 February

Rosen, Larry (2010), iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us, Macmillan

See also our website for several other papers on media technology and childhood: