Researching the impact of digital technology on children

The Australian Government recently announced the establishment of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child, which will work on a world-first longitudinal study into the impact of digital technology on children from birth to age eight.

Lead researcher, Professor Susan Danby of Queensland University of Technology, says the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child, which will undertake many studies over its seven year lifespan, will focus on three key components: the healthy digital child, the educated digital child and the connected digital child.

‘What will be the spine to the centre's work is the longitudinal study. It's a family cohort study of 3000 families,' Danby tells Teacher. ‘Most of the research has been done with children from primary age up … Children are using digital technologies at earlier ages and we need to understand the effect of that,' she says, explaining that the study will follow these families over seven years in order to better understand how digital technology is a part of the everyday lives of families.

Digital technology use in the early years

The centre is uniquely placed to be able to undertake research in real time, which is particularly important for the digital technology field as it develops so quickly. It's expected that the findings from their research will work towards building a stronger evidence-base on the impact of digital technology on children, and work towards reforming public policy and guidelines. The current guidelines, Danby says, differ in their advice around access to digital technology.

‘We have the 24 hour movement guidelines that talk about “absolutely no technology before age one”. … So some of the issues with that is it's not just the time, it's what children are doing with digital technology,' Danby explains.

‘If you're six months old and you're talking to your parent who's in a fly-in/fly-out situation, is that a good use of technology? And we would argue that that is; but we need more research on this.'

The research centre will also work to ensure the public know about the value of digital technology, Danby shares, saying teachers can often face difficulty trying to convince parents that digital technology is something students should be engaging with.

Informing classroom practice

Childhood educators are often asking questions about how to best integrate digital technology into a play-based pedagogy focus, Danby says. So, across the seven year lifespan of the research centre, researchers hope to build a better workforce of professional educators who are comfortable around digital technologies and innovation when it comes to their pedagogy and practice.

‘That's part of what we'll be looking at. How can you, in the everyday life of preschool, looking at the early childhood curriculum – which is very much play-based and learning and problem oriented – how can you engage in ways with digital technology that is supporting children's learning and curiosity and communication? And that's the same in the primary classrooms as well.'

The researchers will also be looking into the concept of digital technology not necessarily always involving a screen, as well as looking at the ways children can be physically active in the digital world and how sleep is related to digital technology use.

Professor Susan Danby says early childhood educators are often questioning how they can best integrate digital technology into a play-based pedagogy.

As an early years’ educator, how are you approaching this? Do you find it challenging to effectively introduce digital devices into the curriculum? What’s worked well in your classroom setting? What hasn’t?