Dr Jane O’Connor is a Reader in Childhood Studies at Birmingham City University and is currently leading ‘Technobabies’, an international research project exploring parents’ perspectives on the use of touchscreen digital devices by 0-3 year olds. In this post she explores the relationship between young children’s rights and digital technology.
My research into the use of mobile digital devices, such as iPads, by children under three has focused on the perspectives of parents and other care givers both in the UK and in a range of other countries including Sweden, Greece and Australia. Cultural differences aside, what has come across most strongly in the findings has been the sense of parental confusion and anxiety around whether or not their babies and toddlers should be allowed to use such devices, for how long and what the most appropriate apps may be. All of these decisions have to be made by families on a daily basis with, as yet, little research evidence from trustworthy sources to guide them. As one parent in Greece put it:
‘We just want to know if children win or lose from using iPads’.
Unfortunately, even with growing numbers of researchers working in the area, the definitive answer to that question is a long way off and the reality is much more nuanced than the question might suggest. The multiple potential benefits and drawbacks of allowing 0-3s to use digital devices continue to be debated, although the general consensus among both parents and professionals seems to be that moderation and supervision are the keys to safely incorporating such technology into very young lives.
However, what has been missing from much research in the area so far, including my own, is a consideration of the issue of children’s rights. We need to think about the extent to which we can say that children, even the very youngest children, have a right to use digital technology and how this might, or indeed should, influence parental decisions in relation to access to mobile devices. When we consider the charter of children’s rights drawn up by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), it seems that preventing usage could be perceived as an infringement of some rights, but an upholding of others. Andy Phippen, Professor of Children and Technology at Plymouth University recently outlined some of the ways in which this could relate to very young children’s technology usage. For example, he suggests that removing all possible ‘risk’ to the child by not allowing them to use digital technology could be interpreted as infringing Article 12 (Respect for the views of the child), Article 17 (Access to information; mass media) and Article 28 (Right to education), whereas the use of mobile devices for ‘digital pacification’ purposes could be seen as infringing on Article 3 (Best interests of the child) and Article 12 (Respect for the views of the child).
In this context, the questions parents need answers to become even more complex. As well as worrying about whether using digital technology will support baby’s learning or damage their eyes they also need to ask ‘Does allowing my child to use an iPad infringe on their rights or support them?’
O’Connor, J. and Fotakopoulou, O. (2016) A threat to early childhood innocence or the future of learning? Parents’ perspectives on the use of touchscreen technology by 0–3 year olds in the UK. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 17(2).
O’Connor, J., Fotakopolou, O., Hatzigianni, M and Fridberg, M. (2018) ‘Parents’ perspectives on the use of touchscreen technology by 0-3 year olds in the UK, Greece, Sweden and Australia’. In Palaiologou, I. (Ed) (2018 forthcoming) Digital Practices in Early Childhood Education: An International Perspective. London: SAGE.