This podcast features Dr. Emma Mercier, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Mercier shares guidance and tips for families of young children in using technology at home.
Natalie Danner: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well strategies adults can use to help them thrive.
Welcome to the Illinois Early Learning podcast. Today we’re talking about “Too Much Tech: Screen Time and Families.” We are joined by Dr. Emma Mercier of the University of Illinois. Dr. Mercier is an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and her research focuses on how children use technology. So thank you so much for being with us today, Dr. Mercier.
Emma Mercier: Thank you, it’s my pleasure to be here.
Natalie Danner: Great, so today we’re eager to hear from you as a researcher on technology and children because our listeners want to know what to do and what not to do with technology and young children. So first, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your research?
Emma Mercier: Sure, so to give you a little bit of background, I actually grew up in Ireland and I went to a school that had two classrooms for eight grades, and it was in the ’80s with very minimal technology if any. And I’ve moved around a whole lot since then, and I partly tell you this because obviously technology is a big part of the communication with my family going forward and a big part of how we use technology with young children.
Then, my background is in psychology and educational psychology with a focus really on social interaction. How do we support children and students actually across the age span to engage in collaborative learning in classrooms? So a lot of the time I designed technology to support collaborative learning in classrooms. But often asking what are the ways that teachers can make this happen? Can technology add something new to experiences that children already are having? And where is technology going to add benefits to the learning experience of our students?
Natalie Danner: Great. Well let’s start by talking about the overall landscape of technology and young children. So today in the classroom, what does technology look like and what does it look like in the home for young children today?
Emma Mercier: So I think this is a really interesting time to ask the question and if you’d asked me the question two years ago we’d be having a very different conversation.
Natalie Danner: Absolutely.
Emma Mercier: I also preface what I’m going to say here in that I have two almost 12-year-old twin stepdaughters and an almost 2-year-old baby girl. And so we have seen firsthand the increase of technology over the last two years as students have gone from in-person school to remote school. The twins were in remote school for the best part of a year, and then obviously my daughter was born right at the beginning of the pandemic and spent. I will bet her first zoom call was when she was about five weeks old. So technology has changed immensely and technology use and our acceptance of technology, I think, it’s changed a lot in the last couple years.
Schools have had to do a very fast pivot from using technology in small amounts as teachers wanted to use it, differing usually by what teachers’ comfort levels were and what their interests were in technology, to having it be something that students were using all day every day. And this, in some ways, I think, showed us the worst possible version of educational technology.
We saw students using Zoom, we saw students using Google Classroom, we saw fairly boring uses of technology. It was great, it filled a need, at a time where having students in a safe environment was more important than having them in face-to-face classrooms. But there’s a whole world out there of online learning or learning that was not part of the experience of a lot of children.
So I think we need to be really careful to separate out what we’ve seen in the last couple of years in remote school to what actually can happen and does happen in online school environments and online various different online learning experiences. Because the value and the potential of technology was not used to the best, to its best potential for sure, and I have absolutely no criticism whatsoever of teachers or school districts in this because they did an incredible job. They jumped at a huge challenge. And every teacher, I know, has worked so incredibly hard to make this a good opportunity for students and keep their learning going.
But there are so many things we’ve done as a field that we just haven’t yet gotten into the classroom, and so I think there’s a lot of potential, there’s a lot more interesting things we can do with technology than we’ve potentially seen over the last few years. And then, from a home perspective, I can certainly speak to my own home environment, where we’ve seen a huge amount more technology being used over the last few years as children had to have their entire lives on Zoom. So, the twins at one point were playing hide and seek on Zoom, which seems like a really innovative way. Whoever is the host opens like a whole lot of different rooms. Every child picks their own room and goes into it, and then the person who’s seeking goes around all the different rooms and finds them. So really innovative ways of using Zoom to have some social interactions, the kind of things that kids are used to doing.
Natalie Danner: So it’s hide and seek in Zoom rooms?
Emma Mercier: Yes, in Zoom rooms.
Natalie Danner: I’ve never heard of that, okay. (laughs)
Emma Mercier: It’s totally bizarre but the first time they said it, I was like, how can you play hide and seek on Zoom? That just seems crazy! But yeah they were doing it, they were having a whole lot of fun doing it. And so I think that’s the innovative use of technology where kids were really trying to have the kind of social interactions they were used to in a new space. And so some of the times where we were concerned that our kids are perhaps sort of sitting and zoning out, and yeah absolutely there was a lot of YouTube being watched as well, but they were also having these innovative and different ways of interacting with their peers and with their friends, and so I think that it’s worth remembering that there was probably a balance.
I don’t think every student and every child did well in the context. I think it was particularly difficult in the early years to have good learning opportunities in an online environment and obviously needed a parent nearby to help facilitate the attention and the activities that were being done, but I don’t think it was necessarily as, I don’t think it was necessarily all bad. Although, I have to, absolutely, being in remote school all day long was spectacularly boring for some kids. It’s just hard to sit at a screen all day.
Natalie Danner: Sure. Now that we’ve touched upon that, let’s talk about some recommendations for technology use. What is recommended for screen time for different ages of children birth through age 5?
Emma Mercier: Right, so the American Academy of Pediatrics are the people who have done most of the recommending and until about 2016, they recommended no screen time before the age of two years, and then very minimal screen time after that. They updated these recommendations, back, as I said, I think, in 2016, to say no screen time at all for children up to about 18 to 24 months, except for things like video chatting. And then for kids over 2 years, an hour or less per day, ideally, with a parent or sibling engaging with them.
And so I think, the updates, the updates definitely were in recognition of the fact that screens are just a general part of our world, that it’s really hard to imagine no screen time for someone before the age of 2. As I mentioned, my family are in Ireland. My almost 2-year-old has a video conference call with my parents a couple of times a week. That’s, she was born at the beginning of the pandemic, that’s pretty much how they’ve seen her grow up. So to imagine not having, not using the benefits of technology for small children because of this recommendation of no screen time, really doesn’t take into account the complexity of what screen time is or what technology can do.
I think it’s highly likely when the recommendations were first created they were really thinking about television watching. The recommendations are limited in terms of thinking about the more, the varied things that kids can do with technology, the apps that are available, again the communication that’s available, the value of some types of TV shows, and particularly TV shows that are watched in collaboration with a parent, rather than just having a kid in front of the television alone. So it’s more of a complex space than I think the AAP originally gave credit for, and probably even now the recommendations are probably a little too strict for any family to really be able to align themselves with.
Natalie Danner: Agreed, so now that we’re thinking about families using technology at home and recognizing the realities of screen time and young children and just the prevalence of screen time, in a variety of ways, what are some of the best ways that you think families can use technology with their children?
Emma Mercier: So there are four different things I want to say about this. The first is research on educational tech, our educational television in particular, which is pointed towards the importance of joint media engagement. So this is the concept of engaging with your kids while they’re watching television. Don’t put them in front of the television to just blindly watch it, but talk to them while they’re watching it, follow up on some of the ideas that are presented, pause the video so that they can, and talk to them or repeat it.
If you’re watching Sesame Street, repeat the letters, the letter of the day, or the number of the day, and I know this because I see a lot of Sesame Street. But the research does show that children get more out of it and learn more when they’re engaging with a parent or peer or an older sibling when they are actually, when they’re watching television. It’s hard for them to really learn just from the television in and of itself, so joint media engagement is a really key aspect of that.
The second one is this idea of creation over consumption and being, it’s more relevant as children get older. But we start, we distinguish things that you can do with technology that are just consuming media. So watching television is probably the biggest thing, watching YouTube, versus creating with technology. So are you drawing on an app, are you creating media yourself, are you creating something that you’re going to upload and share later on?
And of course that comes with a whole lot of caveats about helping children, especially as they get older, understand what they should be sharing with the world. Thinking about, you know, are you using basic coding software for students to learn to make something or are they just consuming, and so trying to make sure the balance of time spent with technology is leaning towards creation, rather than just merely consuming, is an important idea.
And then the third one, I think that is worth, and is probably maybe the key issue when we start thinking about technology and children is asking what is it replacing? So my daughter watches a lot of Sesame Street while I’m in the shower in the morning. Is this replacing any other type of interaction she would be having? No it’s not, she’s not missing out on having a conversation with me, she’s not missing out on playing with something else. She’s alone, she does need me to engage with, she’s sitting in her fancy chair watching my iPad. And yes, she can say iPad, it was one of her early words, but it’s not replacing some opportunity for her to learn.
And so I think that’s a really interesting choice about when parents decide to use technology. If I’m sitting my child in front of the screen all day long, she’s not having the opportunity to play with physical objects, she’s not having the opportunity to draw, she’s not having an opportunity to engage in social interaction in back-and-forth conversation, to learn, to see it happen, she’s not getting outside to play.
So that’s always a key question for me, is it replacing some, a learning opportunity, or is it just giving Mom a chance to have a shower. And that’s the other piece to this. I feel like the recommendations are situated around the idea of an ideal life and none of us have an ideal life, and so sometimes technology, sometimes we choose to use technology because it gives us a break. Because it allows me to make dinner for the other children or it allows.
During the pandemic before I had childcare, it allows me to conduct a dissertation defense while she’s watching Sesame Street in the background, and I apologize to my students who hear Sesame Street in the background of their dissertation defenses, that’s just the reality of the life and sometimes, sometimes it has to happen. So really sort of working out the trade-offs, I think is key when you’re trying to make decisions about this.
Natalie Danner: Agreed, I think that’s a great way of putting it in those four different ways. So, let’s see, we’ve talked about some of the best ways to use technology. So let’s talk about some of the potential benefits of technology and young children. So when we’re thinking of the spectrum of families, some families really prefer to go 100% tech free. Others highly encourage screen time, tech games, coding, learning apps, and different things like that from a very young age. Most families are somewhere in the middle. So what are the benefits of early tech use with young children, and later we’ll get to some of the potential drawbacks?
Emma Mercier: So I think some of the clear benefits are really allowing kids to see the world from a different perspective, to see things that wouldn’t necessarily be available to them. This is sort of a guiding principle throughout all my work. Where does technology add benefit? And so, whether it is watching a show that has a diversity of characters in it, so children might actually be exposed to a more diverse population than they see in their day-to day-lives. And particularly over the last few years, our little ones have had very limited exposure to the world, so it’s allowing them to see things, it’s allowing them to connect people, connect to family members. We talk to my family, we talk to friends via video call so that they have this connection to other people.
There are also really interesting benefits to getting kids into something like coding early on and allowing them to see that technology is something that they have an impact on. Going back to this creation versus consumption. If very early on kids see themselves as creators, as people who can control, you get the dash-and-dot robot that we, I’ve played with in some of my classes on this, and I’ve played with the twins on and off. You know, getting to actually program a robot with a fairly easy drag-and-drop protocol on your iPad is an empowering experience for kids and has the potential for them to actually change how they understand the role of technology in the world. Instead of seeing it as something somebody else does, it’s something that they could potentially do. So those I think are really important ideas that young children can have and can experience through the use of technology.
Natalie Danner: So when families are thinking about introducing a specific technology to their child, whether it’s a tablet or something else, maybe a different app, how can they begin by really thinking about the value of that particular technology or assessing the value of that particular technology for their child?
Emma Mercier: This is a really, really difficult question that parents are facing. We have a really poorly curated, there’s no real curation of apps, and I think the Apple Store actually used to do some curation and has stopped doing it in the last few years. So there’s not really any way of understanding what kids are getting out of the app.
Sometimes looking on blogs, I was looking for something to help the twins understand geography and learn the geography of the United States. And so I did, I did a Google search, and I was like, you know, what apps are good out there? I have to admit I ended up buying magnets for our fridge of the different the U.S. states that we can use and move around, because the quality of, what I could tell from the reviews was that nothing out there was going to really fulfill our needs.
So I think this really is an area where there’s not a lot of information. You can do some searches, there’s not a lot out there in the world. There’s so many apps being created, and there’s not a lot out there. It’s the same with toys, there’s a lot of things out there. In the class I teach on early childhood and technology, we have a library of toys that I hand out to students when we’re teaching face to face and they they try them out, and sometimes it really isn’t until you try it out, you discover the incredibly annoying features of some toys. Like “I would give this to my worst enemy, so their kid can keep making this awful noise all day long,” or the very limited aspects of some of the toys.
So it’s a big problem, and so choosing them carefully, thinking about what is it you want a child to learn from it, or is it just purely for entertainment, and I think one of the things that we’re pushed for, or pushed a lot of time when we think about educational technology is that it has to be educational. And kids learn through play all the time. So sometimes it might be okay for it just to be a playful experience for them. And to say it doesn’t matter if they don’t learn their ABCs from this.
I have an app on my iPad where you drag and drop parts of a train. My little girl is very into trains right now. And it’s very exciting for her to be able to drag and drop things and parts of a train. I don’t think you know, some people would argue that oh it’s teaching her basic interaction with the iPad skills. I don’t think she needs an app to do that, I think she’s going to learn it all by herself at some point. But it’s entertainment, and it’s engaging and you know it gets me five minutes of peace, and sometimes that’s, and she gets to do what she wants, which is play with the train when it’s too cold outside for us to go look at trains.
So I think those are the issues that we face. How do you make a decision? How well is something rated, what is it that you’re trying to get out of it? Are you trying to get your kids to learn their alphabet? How much noise do you want it to make? What sort of interaction, are you going to, is there a way for you to support the child while they’re doing it? Are there aspects of it that you can do with them and aspects they can do by themselves? Those are the kinds of features I would look for in an app. So that and, particularly, is there a way for other kids to play with them, if you have siblings? So that it’s not technology as something that you do on your own, but something that they potentially do with other people.
Natalie Danner: So let’s talk about some other consequences, and if there are potential drawbacks to technology too. So we know through child development that toddlers and preschoolers are very real world oriented versus sometimes fantasy world oriented. So how does technology influence a young child’s concept of what’s real and tangible and what is not?
Emma Mercier: So there’s some interesting research, teams that are looking at robotic animals and having children trying to work out like, is this like a real animal or is this like a stuffed toy? And you know, we do see a developmental progression of very young children feeling like your robotic dog is closer to a real dog than a stuffed animal, and as they get older sort of being able to distinguish those. But this is quite a new phenomena.
We have multiple Alexa’s in our home. My baby knows no world where you don’t talk to a machine. And I don’t know what that’s going to do to her concept of humanity, and you know who is this Alexa who plays us music and tells us what the weather is and various other basic features and, as she gets older, I’m assuming the AI’s are going to get better, and so she’s gonna have, she’s never going to grow up in a world where you don’t talk to machines in a way that none of us did. And I don’t think we have any really good conceptual understanding of what that, what is that is going to do to children’s understanding of humanity.
And acceptance of AI and all sorts of things that we might be very hesitant, I know a lot of people are very hesitant to have Alexas and Siris and various other things in their home. For us, the trade off of having music easily available is one that we’re willing to make, but I think, I think children are going to grow up with a more complex understanding of alive and not alive. I think, I think it’s up to us as parents to really help them distinguish those things and to understand, in particular, what you can and can’t, how you can and can’t treat a human or a real live animal versus yeah.
When I have my hands full I might throw the stuffed toys down the stairs, I’m not going to throw a real puppy down the stairs. I’m also probably not going to throw a robotic dog down the stairs because they’re very expensive. But what are those lines, and how do we help children understand, you know, in case of fire, we might save our puppy but we’re not going to save our robotic dog. And so those pieces, I think, are really key to helping them develop and maintain both this broader acceptance of technology, but holding on to our humanity at the same time.
Natalie Danner: Yeah thinking a lot on how to care for others and pets and family and friends. I like how you touched on that too. So when we’re talking about risks, are there really any risks of early tech use with children when we’re talking about very young children or aren’t there? If there are, what are they?
Emma Mercier: Well, so the research is pretty clear that children don’t learn language particularly well from screens. It is not a, it’s not a replacement for social interaction. You can’t learn, you can’t learn about how to interact with somebody when a screen doesn’t interact with you. My daughter, actually most of her early screen experience was Zoom calls and video calls with family. When we started allowing her to see people on television, she started getting, she was actually really upset to start with. And it’s sort of this, again this distinction between things that respond to you and things that don’t respond to you.
And so, for her it sort of was weird that television didn’t respond to her, because all her screens had responded to her. And so, that’s kind of, that’s the key piece, and so expecting a child to learn language, to learn social interaction from something that isn’t responding appropriately is concerning, and there’s a lot of early research on child development back in the ’60s and ’70s, which showed how upset children got when they were being shown a video of their mom who wasn’t responding to them appropriately, that it’s disconcerting for babies. Babies expect responsiveness. It’s disconcerting and upsetting.
So what does that do over a long period of time to a child who is always being exposed to something that isn’t appropriately responding to them? What are they not learning? Is a key question to ask, and then later research, again that looked at learning a foreign language from a live human versus a video of that person showed very distinct differences and learning outcomes. Students don’t learn very much from a video.
And so, no, we cannot replace social interaction, we cannot expose children to foreign languages just through a video, we actually, we have to engage with them. And it is, as you know, one of the things I said, you know what is technology replacing? If it’s replacing their social interaction, if it’s replacing their opportunity to engage with objects, to build things, to play, then they’re going to miss out on learning opportunities.
Natalie Danner: Interesting, yes, definitely. When you were talking about the infants and thinking about how there’s not that serve-and-return language, so there’s not that interaction with the television where they say something or they move, and then the other person moves back or responds to them, that’s a real loss, because that’s what they need. And that’s what they crave, so you’re right, there is that missing piece to some of the technology use when they don’t have what they need for their developmental level.
So thinking about children and technology, do you believe that children can become addicted to technology or would you phrase it a different way? And then families, some families really struggle with their children using technology and those children having challenging behaviors around technology. If the parent wants to either limit their use or say it’s enough for today and for a child acting out after that, how can families help their children that really struggle with either stopping their use of technology, at a certain time or just placing limits around the use of technology in the home?
Emma Mercier: So, to answer your first question: Yes, I definitely think kids can get addicted to technology, they can learn, they come to expect it. It’s a nice zoning out time … to be watching a screen. I didn’t touch, in the previous conversation, about the risks—and we’re really talking about early childhood—but I do think social media, like there are massive risks that I don’t think we need to cover in this conversation today, but absolutely as young children start to use technology and come to expect it and come to have autonomy over their use of technology as they get older, you’re setting yourself up as a parent for difficulties if there aren’t limits put on early on.
And if there’s sort of a conversation about what is appropriate isn’t something that happens regularly at an early age, so that children know that they’re just not going to have free access throughout their lives, because there are a lot of risks as children get older and engage with other people through technology. So I think it’s really important early on to set those limits, you know we do a fair amount of distracting when my little girl asks for her iPad, or actually my iPad. A lot of the time that would be her first choice, she wants to play with the iPad, she doesn’t always want to play with things. It’s very quick and very easy at this age to you know, have her go draw something or build with blocks, or play with the doll’s house but, it may just be the easiest and most fulfilling kind of experience to play with the screen and we know that screens have a draw to them.
I think, as parents, it is really important for us to model appropriate technology use, so you’re not always having our phone, not turning to our device as soon as there’s a moment of downtime, so the children learn that it’s not the only, the only thing to do, that it’s not the default activity is to look at your screen. But I think it’s really hard for all of us as adults to not do that, to not check emails, you know. I try to keep the idea of the human in the room is the most important thing. And so, if your phone’s ringing, but your child is talking right now I’ll just talk to you. You’ll deal with the adults later, the phone will still be there, the text message will still be there and trying to model that throughout it’s really difficult.
There’s a book I like a lot, it’s called Tech Generation by Brooks and Lasser. The subtitle is “raising balanced kids in a hyper-connected world,” and they actually, they talk through a lot about how do you model technology use and also how you sort of create an understanding with kids about how often they can use technology. And they have sort of three levels, three different chapters where they talk about if you’re in the early days, the green light level, if you’re in the sort of warning days, where you feel like kids are becoming addicted to technology, and then they have the red light level where you know if you’re already deep into this mess, how do you start to pull yourselves out?
So it’s a very practical and interesting book. They have some really nice early chapters about why technology is so addictive. It’s obviously aimed at a slightly older audience, but I think even for parents of young children, it’s really useful to think early on and to set these, set your own habits up, as well as your children’s habits, to make sure that technology isn’t something that’s going to be a minefield in five or ten years time.
Natalie Danner: Great points, and we will include that book recommendation in our show notes too, so thanks for that recommendation, the title was Tech Generation is that right?
Emma Mercier: Yeah, raising balanced kids in a hyper-connected world.
Natalie Danner: Great sounds like a good book. So, as we wrap things up, what’s the most important message that you want to give to families and teachers of young children about technology?
Emma Mercier: I think the biggest issue, from a parent perspective, is not to feel guilty about technology use, and that it fills a need. To look for ways the children are going to get something out of using technology that you can’t provide in your regular home environment. You know, exposure to a diverse range of characters, coding a robot, those kinds of things that aren’t really possible without technology so that it’s adding value, instead of just being a placeholder keeping them entertained. And for teachers as well, there’s a whole lot of really interesting technology out there. Deciding as a teacher when the trade-off is worth it. When is this going to replace a different activity in my classroom? And for some kids it can be really helpful to have different ways of engaging with material. So thinking about when I can use technology to change up something. So content areas that might be difficult for some kids, and where is it just keeping kids busy and we should be doing something more traditional. These are good guidelines to keep in mind.
Natalie Danner: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Mercier for being our guest on the Illinois Early Learning podcast.
Emma Mercier: It was good to talk to you.
Natalie Danner: Yes, thank you, and until next time, thanks and keep early learning at the forefront.
You have just heard a podcast by the Illinois Early Learning Project. For more information, please visit us at illinoisearlylearning.org where you can find evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents and caregivers and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.
Brooks, M. & Lasser, J. (2018). Tech generation: Raising balanced kids in a hyper-connected world. Oxford University Press.