You’re not alone if you sometimes worry about how much time your young child spends in front of a screen. Whether they’re at a computer or watching TV, it’s hard to know what's for the best.
Some people say that using a computer is harmful and that too much time in front of a computer or TV screen is a bad thing. Others say that computers, DVDs and TV shows can help with learning numbers and letters so they’re good for helping children get ready for school.
There’s no definitive piece of research that proves that looking at a computer or TV screen is either good or bad for young children, so it seems safe to say that using technology in moderation is the key.
Balance time with the computer and other activities
Your child might enjoy dressing up, playing with toys, running around outside or drawing and painting. You probably wouldn’t want them to spend all their time on any one of these activities. The same goes for the computer, so encourage them to try a range of things.
It’s not just about the computer – think about other technologies
You might want to teach your child how to use a remote control so that they can find the section they like on a DVD. Low-cost digital cameras provide lots of opportunities for creativity and communication. Some children like toys such as play laptops, cash registers and electronic pets. Try giving them devices that don’t work any more so that they can use them in role play. An old mobile phone can lead to imaginary conversations with friends and relatives, while an old computer can be a prop for playing pretend schools or offices.
Balance different types of content
The computer isn’t just about educational games and activities. It’s okay just to have some fun too. Spend some time familiarising yourself with the content of various websites so that you can make sure you feel happy with what your child is doing.
How long should my child spend on the computer?
Research doesn’t provide any clear guidance on this issue. Perhaps you already have rules about what time your child should go to bed or when they can have treats. You might also want to consider some family rules about acceptable use of the computer.
Some families only allow access at certain times of day. Others choose to restrict the amount of time their child spends on the computer by using a kitchen timer - or you could buy a large sand timer like the ones used in primary schools. Involve your child and other family members in the negotiations. The computer can be a source of squabbles if other children want to have a turn, so it’s worth trying to agree on a set of arrangements that applies to everybody.
Solo and shared use
Involve the family. Getting other people involved means that your child has a companion who can help when they get stuck and can keep an eye on what they’re doing. Having somebody to share the experience with is also more fun. Perhaps your child has an older brother or sister who can help them get set up and keep an eye on what they’re doing.
It’s great if your child can share their experiences at the computer with somebody else. But sometimes it’s good for them to be independent. It’s good for you too – e.g. if you need a break while you do the washing up or want to sit down with a cup of tea. Use a trusted site, such as CBeebies, and make sure you’re in sight or within calling distance.
Know what your child is doing. You might not be too worried about inappropriate content for children of this age as their emerging reading and writing skills make it less likely that they will stray onto undesirable sites. But this is the time to establish good habits, so encourage your child to talk to you about what they’re doing.
What can children of this age do?
This is a list of some of the things that children aged 3-5 can do with technologies. Some children can surprise adults by doing or understanding a lot more than this, while other children may be more reluctant.
As children develop the ability to produce precise movements they can use a mouse or track pad, scroll through pages on a website and depress the buttons on a keyboard, remote control or mobile phone. Using games consoles becomes possible as they learn to coordinate movement in both hands at the same time.
Language and signs
As children start to understand the use of symbols they can identify ‘stop’, ‘start’ and ‘fast forward’ controls and the icons for their favourite games and websites. By the age of 5, they can provide a commentary to accompany photos or video. Some children are able to read or recognise simple instructions.
Children learn to sort and match items, to arrange objects in order of size and to understand ‘more’ and ‘less’. They can also use categories such as shape and colour. Many website and console games offer opportunities for using these skills. Children are able to make choices from a menu as they become more able to think about routines and sequences.
Social and emotional
Children of this age become more able to control their behaviour, grow in independence and understand rules. They are learning to take turns and cooperate with others, although they can still get frustrated when they don’t get their way or can’t achieve success at something. Children respond to animations and characters that appeal to their sense of humour.
The way you use the computer will influence how your child uses it. So involve your child. Let them see how it can help you find a holiday, compare prices, or locate an address on a map. They may not be able to understand everything you’re doing, but they are learning about how we can use technology in everyday life. They’ll probably pick up more than you realise!
Children can learn other things too. They can learn how to operate devices and to understand something about creating a response. Using technology can also help them to persist with an activity, deal with losing a game or share with others. And they can also extend their knowledge and understanding of the world by learning about the things they’re interested in.
If you feel that your child is too young to be on the computer, then provide them with other things to do that will seem attractive. Don’t worry if they’re just not very interested in technology and prefer traditional toys or art and craft activities – that’s okay too.
How to make a magic moment
Your child will benefit more from looking at DVDs and TV programmes or playing games on a website together with a grown-up or older brother or sister. Encourage them to talk about what they’re watching or doing.
Ask questions or make connections to their life in the same way that you would if you were reading a picture book together. Jointly choose activities that could spin off from the programme or game, such as painting or singing. This can work the other way around too. You might be involved in a non-technological activity that can be extended by going to the computer to look up something.
How CBeebies can help
According to CBeebies statement of policy (2011), the remit of CBeebies is ‘to offer high-quality, mostly UK-produced programmes to educate and entertain the BBC's youngest audiences’ (children aged 6 and under). The service should provide ‘a range of programming designed to encourage learning through play in a consistently safe environment’.
With this in mind, have a browse through the CBeebies website and see if your child has a favourite show they would like to investigate online. If (as a grown-up) you are not familiar with the CBeebies output, why not click through to the Programmes area (here in the Grown-Ups section) and take a look at all the content on offer.
There are lots of shows which feature a wide variety of topics and appeal to different age groups – from babies to Reception and Year One aged children. If you want to narrow down the choice, select from the list of categories, and away you go!
By Lydia Plowman