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Childhood in the digital age

By: Marilise Nel (Intern Counselling Psychologist)

Technology and digital devices such as computers, smartphones and tablets offer a world of possibilities to connect to others and gather information. They have become an important part of our daily lives. It has also become common to see a toddler play on a parents’ phone, or for young children to spend time on a tablet or computer at some point during their week.

  1. The questions we have about technology and children:

The entertainment and interactivity that digital devices offer to young children is the very reason why it is so appealing to them. This is, however very different to what a typical childhood entailed a few decades ago. With this in mind, it may be useful to consider how this may be shaping children during their early years. This has become the focus for many parents and professionals alike.

  1. How is technology influencing childhood itself?

  2. Is technology advantageous or detrimental to children?

  3. How do we help a child make sense of the mass of information available to them?

  4. Is there a specific amount of screen time that is ideal per day given a child’s age?

This blog article offers a glimpse into the debates around the pros and cons of children’s use of technology, and includes some information from recent research on the topic.

  1. Technology can help with learning new skills:

It is well known that childhood is marked by many developmental changes; physical, language, social, cognitive and fine and gross motor changes. This is often measured through the achievement of certain developmental milestones in these areas, relative to a child’s age. Professionals, caregivers and parents have wondered whether the presence of technology in children’s lives hinder the attainment of these developmental milestones, or if it may in certain cases offer a new means to stimulate growth and help children with learning and skills acquisition.

The benefits of interaction with technology by children have been advocated for by Ryan and Deci (2000) in educational psychology research. The authors state that a child’s intrinsic motivation is stimulated when they interact with digital learning, where they can demonstrate mastery over tasks, copy their parents’ interactions with digital devices, and gain a sense of achievement. The accomplishment of these developmental tasks, such as gained self-esteem and competence (feeling mastery over a task), social relatedness and an increase in a sense of autonomy (a feeling of being in control through making rational choices) can benefit children in many ways. Furthermore, by engaging in digital activities which offer enjoyment for the child, their capacity for perseverance and task management is also improved (FutureLearn, 2016).

  1. Using technology from a young age:

The attractiveness of touch-screen technology means that children as young as 3 can now interact with digital devices. Holloway, Green and Livingston (2013) has noted a remarkable increase in very young children (such as pre-schoolers) making use of smartphones or tablets to access the internet. Furthermore, current research figures published in the UK state that a third of all children own their own tablet (Jütte et al., 2014). These figures seem to rise as the child’s age increases, with research estimating that 65% of children aged between 12-15 years will own a digital device (Jütte et al., 2014). Children aged between 3-4 years seem to be using the internet mostly for watching video clips (Holloway et al., 2013), especially on Youtube, or for playing games (Holloway et al., 2013); while slightly older children use the internet to gather information, particularly to complete homework, or to connect with others and socialise (Holloway et al., 2013; Ofcom, 2014). These figures are not yet researched in South Africa, but similar trends in technology are becoming more common.

  1. Using technology to communicate:

For slightly older children, it is important to help children acquire knowledge about the dangers of the internet. Parents will need to keep up to date about digital devices, the internet and trends emerging amongst young children. Most importantly, parents also need to be involved with their child, know which social platforms they are engaged in, and offer guidance about social-digital manners and the risks of sharing personal information with others. Certain internet companies are selling software which can assist to block sites which are known to have harmful content, but this is only a precaution. Children still need to be educated about the dangers of sharing personal information on social sites which seem harmless, as well as how to communicate well with others on such platforms.

  1. Parents need to be aware of the risks:

As these figures start to inform us of the way in which childhood is being shaped by digital technology, it is perhaps noteworthy to consider how children can be guided in interacting with technology in ways that first and foremost provide safety, whilst also stimulating their development. According to Helen King from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (UK), the most radical influence that the internet has had on children in the past decade concerns their social wellbeing. Children are able to access others and communicate with them in a virtual space which is outside of the real here-and-now world (Frostup, 2016). Livingstone , Görzig and Ólafsson (2011) states in their article titled Disadvantaged Children and Online Risk that it is the immature social skills which puts children at great risk when it comes to internet use. Furthermore, with as many as 37% of children aged 9-16 stating that they are more knowledgeable about the internet than their parents (Holloway et al., 2013), awareness needs to be raised with caretakers about children’s digital engagement.

  1. Setting limits about ‘screen time’:

Perhaps the question that adults need to keep in mind is “How do we raise digital children?” On a TEDTalk by Sonia Livingston, a few experts have voiced their guideline regarding this. Julia Johnson, a child, adolescent and family psychotherapist, has mentioned that for children under the age of four, interaction on a digital device should be accompanied by an adult, entail activities that are done together, such as playing games or reading a digital book, and that the child should not be left alone with the device as a form of solitary entertainment. Furthermore, the American Academy of Paediatrics has stated that a child under the age of two should not have significant screen time at all, whilst children over the age of two should not have more than two hours a day. This is however merely a guide, and other factors, such as the parents attitude towards learning, the child’s developmental capacity and the types of activities engaged in should also be considered.

  1. Encouraging life outside of technology:

Lastly, Professor Tanya Byron, consultant, clinical psychologist in child and adolescent mental health, reminds parents that what we know about the impact of technology on the child’s developing mind, particularly neurological impacts, is not yet well researched; however, what we do know is that children require a more diverse range of life experiences over and above mere digital learning. Children need to grow in areas such as fine and gross motor movement, sociability in groups and on a one-to-one basis, discover textures and sounds in the world, and learn about their own creativity. As such, one cannot go wrong by encouraging children to spend time outdoors, to play, socialise and learn in more traditional ways.


Frostup, M. (2016). Childhood in the Digital Age: Digital Kids [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from

FutureLearn: The Open University. Childhood in the Digital Age [Online Course]. 2016. Retrieved from

TEDTalk by Sonia Livingstone (2016).How children engage with the internet . Retrieved from

Holloway, D. Green, L. & Livingstone, S. (2013). Zero to Eight: Young Children and their Internet Use, LSE, London and EU Kids Online, pp. 10–13.

Jütte, S., Bentley, H., Miller, P. and Jetha, N. (2014). How Safe Are Our Children? 2014, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), London, England.

Livingstone, S., Görzig, A. and Ólafsson, K. (2011. Disadvantaged Children and Online Risk [online]. Available at (accessed 9 March 2015).

Ofcom (2014). Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 2014 [online]. Available at

Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L. (2000). ‘Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions’, Contemporary Educational Psychology, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 54–67.

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