It’s time for announcements at the Mystic Learning Center in Somerville, and almost immediately one student is sent to the time-out table for refusing to get off her phone. During computer time, a group of eight year olds gather around to watch Fetty Wap music videos, giggling and hiding the screen from their supervisors, while other kids exercise by playing Just Dance on the center’s Wii. Once homework time rolls around, the staff members are hounded by kids waving cellphones in their faces, begging to call their parents to take them home early. In short, go to any classroom or afterschool center today, and it is impossible to escape the prevailing influence technology has on the kids there.
The question, then, is not whether technology is having an impact on children growing up in the 21st century. Rather, it is whether this influence can be a positive one.
DevTech, an interdisciplinary research group run by Tufts Professor Marina Umaschi Bers and housed on Tufts’ campus, seeks to ensure that this impact is beneficial. In a little office space filled with colorful toys located in the Child Development building, the lab develops technologies for children in pre-Kindergarten through second grade that seek to teach skills such as coding and engineering from an early age. “In our lab we focus on something called the positive technological development approach that’s looking at what are the strategies we can use to foster positive development and positive behaviors amongst children… so collaboration, communication, community building, things of that nature,” said Amanda Sullivan, the Early Childhood Technology Certificate Program Associate Director at DevTech.
One of DevTech’s major products is KIBO, a wooden robotics kit for young children that allows them to create a sequence out of blocks and scan the codes to make the robot move in the way they have instructed. The toy looks and feels very much like a standard childhood plaything, with the added bonus of teaching kids coding and sequencing without increasing their screen time. Their other key project is an app called Scratch Jr., which practices the same skills but in a digital format. With each of these products, there is an emphasis on creative expression as well as fostering technological skills. “KIBO doesn’t look like anything until the child puts their own imagination on it,” said Sullivan. “We also think of it not just as teaching these technology and engineering and coding concepts but as a means of self-expression, just like a blank canvass or a wad of clay.” DevTech’s successful use of technology in early childhood development provides an instructive alternative to addictive games like Candy Crush.
Yet not all technological products and media aimed at children have the intentionality of DevTech’s work. It is impossible to ignore the incredibly easy access children now have to a world of media and gaming that was previously less available to them. A 2013 study done by Common Sense Media found that 72 percent of children under the age of eight have used a smartphone or a tablet, a dramatic increase from the 38 percent that had reported using them in a study done by the same group in 2011. While it is possible for parents to control some of the content that their children are able to access on these devices, greater internet availability and more hours of screen-time could increase the risk of children being exposed to age-inappropriate content.
What’s more, in a media environment that often lacks diversity and nuanced perceptions of different identities, increased media consumption at a young age can shape the way children see their world. “There is some research suggestive of a relationship between heavy media use by children and stereotypical views of gender, race, ethnicity, and age,” wrote Child Development Senior Lecturer Julie Dobrow in an email. This lack of representation has other consequences; Professor Dobrow noted research by psychologist Sheryl Browne Graves which suggests that Black and Hispanic children are disproportionally affected by the lack of positive representation of those who look like them in the media.
Sullivan agrees that not all technology used by young children is beneficial, especially in regards to their social development. “I think there’s always the risk in a home setting that technology is used as a babysitter, and so it can sometimes replace authentic experiences and interactions you could have with a parent or a babysitter or caregiver or your peers when you’re just handed a phone or an iPad with media for you to consume,” said Sullivan. “I think that not all screen time is created equally…when you’re thinking about giving your young child a limited amount of screen time, you want that screen time to be quality, and not just something that’s passive that’s not engaging them on a deeper level.” When kids are consumed by what Sullivan refers to as “passive” technological experiences, they can become more antisocial and less willing to leave the world of their game or TV show to interact with those around them.
What Sullivan and the DevTech team would like to see instead is an increase in technologies such as KIBO and Scratch Jr., which both engage children in learning concrete skills and encourage collaboration with their peers. “The types of technology we develop, computational thinking tools, allow children to be creators of their digital experience rather than consumers,” said Sullivan. She recounted one instance in which an elementary school teacher used KIBO to enhance her annual unit on the Iditarod, the Alaskan dog-sled race, by tasking the children to program their robots to complete a relay race passing fake medicine across the classroom floor. DevTech envisions stories like this to become the norm—a future in which technology is incorporated in the classroom in an organic way, a natural addition to the early childhood curriculum.
Because children’s use of technology can reap both positive and negative effects, it is perhaps incumbent on adults and researchers like those at DevTech to make sure the technology that kids are using is both appropriate and instructive. “Tools are just tools, and it’s all about how the adults use them when you’re talking about young children,” said Sullivan. “It’s on the ownership of the adult more so than the ownership of the tool, be it a video game or a coding application or a robotics kit, to think about when and how exactly you’re implementing the tool to get the outcome that you want.”