Scene One:

It’s December 2015, in Melbourne, and the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital releases the results of its first Australian Child Health Poll. Excessive screen time has emerged as the top ‘big problem’ for the health of Australian children and teenagers ahead of obesity; not enough physical activity; unhealthy diet; bullying; illegal drug use; family and domestic violence; internet safety; child abuse and neglect;  and suicide. One in five parents rated it as a big problem in their own home. It was identified as a big problem by parents of very young children and the number of parents who see it as a big problem has been increasing as their children grow up.

Poll Director Dr Anthea Rhodes is quoted by the Brisbane Courier Mail as saying “these problems were a side effect of our modern lifestyle and lacked easy solutions”.

“Where do people go to for help?” she said. “If you have a kid with an allergy you go to a GP or ­hospital. If you have a teenager with a gaming addiction or a toddler who has a tantrum when the iPad is taken away, it’s not clear where parents go for help with these modern lifestyle issues. They’re almost easier to ignore than address, which is part of the problem,” she said.

Scene Two:

Irvine, California, USA , and 450 delegates from all over the world gather at the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) Special Meeting on Technology and Media in Children’s Development.

For three days, an audience predominantly of child psychology and health professionals, academics and researchers considers the ubiquitous presence of digital devices and social media in the environment of 21st century children, from birth. This meeting provides a forum for intellectual and interdisciplinary exchange on media and technology in development , and reviews the evidence of the impacts on and potentials for children’s development.

The Special Meeting was the first to be devoted solely to these issues and attracted a bigger audience than any other Special Topic Meeting ever held by the SRCD – surely an indicator of the depth of concern about children’s use of digital media and enthusiasm for discussing solutions.

Scene Three:

It’s February 13-16 2017 in Miami USA, and over 2000 delegates from all over the world gather for the annual Kidscreen Summit. They include children’s TV, game and internet content producers, broadcasters, toy companies and marketers (think Nickelodeon, Rovio, Pokemon, Nintendo, Viacom, Walt Disney, Google, Amazon, Sesame Workshop, our own ABC, and for good measure, around 25 Australian production companies). The conference organisers say “It’s chock-full of keynotes, presentations, panel discussions and workshops exploring new strategies and trends, innovative ideas and practical business solutions that will help drive your business forward next year.”

The conference has sessions on topics such as “Guardians of the Galaxy’s Cross-Platform Quest” which describes how “ambitious platform diversity (from iTunes to Facebook) has been the key to unlocking audience engagement and affinity for the blockbuster property.”  [Note: the film is classified M in Australia, a DVD series PG, and the computer game G]. Another discusses how  ‘Activision Blizzard’s Skylanders almost single-handedly created the US$4-billion toys-to-life category…tasked with bringing the bestselling video game franchise to TVs around the globe”.  Mattel, Out of the Blue and Zodiak Kids share insights on toys and licensing of characters, and  Insight Kids’ child development experts share their research into how to attract fans and devotion to brands.

While the emphasis seems to be on how to get your kid-product sold, it’s not all about business.  There’s a keynote “presentation of an eye-opening research study exploring why and how we are unconsciously undermining the development of empathy and caring in today’s kids”.

So, as children’s digital media environment expands, parents are increasingly caught up in dilemmas around their children’s engagement with it, researchers are trying to explore more of the likely impacts on children’s development, and the production industry seems often more intent on making money out of the child consumer, than in providing them with content that will enhance their lives.

The parent is left to cope alone with dilemmas such as “my young child needs to be dragged away from the iPad – he seems addicted”. A father wrote recently of his young son’s strong attraction for Minecraft: “Minecraft in moderation seems terrific, but how many children can manage the addictive pull of such a well-made computer game? What worlds of their own creating will remain unimagined with such constructed entertainments competing to fill the few truly empty hours our current educational and social landscape allows them?” Many games are purposely created with just such “addictive pull”. If that’s the case, are young children better off not starting?

Many parents also worry that “Children need to keep up with the latest to prepare for future work, but how do I keep up?”;  “Videogames are too violent, but they are all playing them”; “Some games are really interesting and engaging – how do I find what’s really educational?”;  “Where can I get reliable advice?”.  They are blamed if they give up the struggle, but where’s the evidence-based support that many parents need?

The Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM) and other early childhood professionals believe that such support is crucial in the early years, and that all parents of young children should have access to reliable information and strategies for starting smart with screens.

ACCM is tackling many of these issues at its 60th birthday conference Tech and tots: challenges for early childhood development in a digital age, held in Melbourne on May 5.  It has invited an impressive range of speakers to review the physical, social and emotional, as well as cognitive impacts of media use on young children in presentations that should be of vital interest to early childhood professionals across a broad range of disciplines, researchers, policy makers and parent organisations. For more information about the conference, visit: http://childrenandmedia.org.au/events/accm-conference

– Barbara Biggins OAM

References

Australian Child Health Poll (2015).  https://www.childhealthpoll.org.au/polls/top-10-child-health-problems/

Australian Council on Children and the Media (2017) Tech and tots: challenges for child development in a digital age. Melbourne, May 5 2017. http://childrenandmedia.org.au/events/accm-conference

Kidscreen Summit 2017. http://summit.kidscreen.com/2017/

Society for Research in Child Development. Special meeting. (2016)  Technology and Media in Children’s Development. Irvine California 28-30 October 2016.  http://tmcd.srcd.org/ and http://srcd.org/technology-media-child-development-specialtopicmeeting

 

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