The Dilemma in Raising Digital Kids: Embrace the Positive Benefits and Let Go of the Fears

For the past weeks, I’ve been watching Black Mirror, and I have been reading about Artificial Intelligence (AI). What I noticed in both Black Mirror and AI, is that both share themes of fear and the unknown. Black Mirror makes a social commentary about technology and media use – the human condition cannot exist when embracing technology; while AI detractors worry that computers will take over the humans. While both arguments are valid, the negative messages are more pronounced than the positive messages.

Messages like this one ,and this one

Which provides this quote on the technology and media debate: “If you look at the role that screen media is playing in our society — contributing perhaps to fearfulness and isolation — there are ways to say perhaps it’s a bigger crisis than opioids.”

These messages tend to focus on the negative aspect of technology while forgetting, once again, the most crucial aspect of technology and media use – relationships. Last week, I wrote about why relationships matter when we integrate technology into our lives. This week I read an article on AI that proves once again, why relationships are essential in technology use.

Research has shown that relationships between a child and adults shape a child’s interpersonal being and promote social development (Tayler, 2015; Adamson, Bakeman, Deckner, & Nelson 2014). Sustained adult-child relationships also increase the opportunities for children to develop literacy and math skills (Ostrosky, Gaffney, & Thomas, 2006; Cartmill et al. 2013). Learning in an active and constructive process where learning depends on relationships contexts. Hamre & Pianta’s (2005) research focus on the instructional and emotion support from teachers in the first grade to evaluate how supportive relationships between adult and children can moderate children’s risk of school failure. Hamre & Pianta (2005) defined school-based risk through multiple indicators such as demographic factors like low maternal education, and general functioning and adaption in the classroom like behavior and academic problems. Sample participants in this study included 1,346 children and mothers from hospitals located in Little Rock, AK; Irvine, CA; Lawrence, KS; Boston, MA; Philadelphia, PA; Pittsburgh, PA; Charlottesville, VA; Morganton, NC; Seattle, WA, and Madison, WI. Classroom observations were conducted in the children’s second year of school. Children were group based on their functioning and demographic factors. Children’s outcomes were assessed with the Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-educational Battery-Revised (WJ-R; Woodcock & Johnson, 1989), while the student-teacher relationship was evaluated with the Student-Teacher Relationship Scale (Pianta, 2002). The study results provide evidence on the importance of adult-child relationships in moderating early school failure. Instead of adults being distant observers of children’s learning and social and emotional experiences, mutual engagement, exploration, and meaning-making can influence and accelerate a child’s social and cognitive achievements.  If as practitioners we approach early learning with thoughtful mediation, why can’t we approach technology and media use messages with young children the same way?

As a practitioner working with families, teachers, and young children, I’m often approached by parents and educators with questions about technology, many which focus on the fear and the unknown. These fears and challenges are based on traditional structures and a culture of misinformation. A scan of latest articles and think pieces include mostly negative messages and that’s what makes news, but the reality is different. There is a vast ecology demonstrating the positive use of technology with young children. Studies have shown how children with multimedia-enhanced tools, are more likely to gain and improve skills in language, vocabulary, and math, especially for low-income children (Silverman & Hines, 2009; Verhallen, Bus, & Jong, 2006; McCarthy, Li, Tiu & Atienza 2013). Discussion of AI include how a computer can beat world chess champions, but it cannot discuss the strategies and have conversations to discuss these strategies (Norvig, 2012). The relationship is not included as part of the AI processor. No technology can replace human interaction, and AI is just one more tool to expand our learning to continue to seek innovative practices. This article sums up once again the importance of relationships. While trying to find a solution for his illness, Roger Schank, visited two different doctors, one who gave him the wrong diagnosis and another one, who listened and asked questions to find the right diagnosis.

“Dr. Radhakrishnan did something very weird. He asked, and he listened carefully to my answers. Until computers can do that they will not replace human doctors (or anyone else who needs to think actually.)”

Technology can be that tool to support doctors make those successful diagnoses for patients. It cannot be the all-encompassing tool to diagnose someone, but it can add to the doctor’s tools for a successful practice. The same way families, educators, and the practitioners can use technology, to support those children and families in which technology can be a window to explore the world.

The question then is, how can we practitioners and researchers can provide more opportunity spaces to broker positive use of tech and media use with families, educators, and children?

Adamson, L. B., Bakeman, R., Deckner, D. F., & Nelson, P. B. (2014). From Interactions to Conversations: The Development of Joint Engagement During Early Childhood. Child Development, 85, 3, 941-955.

Cartmill, E. A., Armstrong, B. F., Gleitman, L. R., Goldin-Meadow, S., Medina, T. N. & Trustwell, J. C. (2013) Quality of early parent input predicts child vocabulary three years later, PNAS Early Edition, 110 (28), DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1309518110.

Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2005). Can Instructional and Emotional Support in the First-Grade Classroom Make a Difference for Children at Risk of School Failure?. Child Development, 76, 5, 949-967.

Norvig, P. (2012). Artificial intelligence: Early ambitions. New Scientist, 216, 2889.)

McCarthy, B., Li, L., Tiu, M., & Atienza, S. (2013). PBS kids mathematics transmedia suites in preschool homes. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, 128-136.

Ostrosky, M. M., Gaffney, J. S., & Thomas, D. V. (2006). The Interplay between Literacy and Relationships in Early Childhood Settings. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 22, 2, 173-191.

Silverman, R., & Hines, S. (2009). The effects of multimedia-enhanced instruction on the vocabulary of English-language learners and non-English-language learners in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(2), 305-314

Tayler, C. (2015). Learning in Early Childhood: experiences, relationships and ‘Learning to Be’. European Journal of Education, 50, 2, 160-174.

Verhallen, M., Bus, A., & de Jong, M. (2006). The promise of multimedia stories for kindergarten children at risk. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(2), 410-419.