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Six questions that parents ask about children and digital media

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Lydia Plowman is Chair in Education and Technology in the Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh. She is Vice-Chair of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) panel for Education, Linguistics and Psychology and a member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Strategic Advisory Network, with a particular interest in social, cultural and ethical issues. She is interested in digital media and young children’s learning in a range of formal and informal settings, particularly in the ways in which technology is integrated into family life and used for leisure, work and educational purposes in the home.

The Children’s Media Foundation recently asked me and my colleague, Jonathan Hancock, to write a research-informed and parent-friendly guide to some of the questions that are asked about children's uses of digital media. The questions covered by the review are:

1) Are screen-based media ‘bad’ for my children?

2) Will playing violent video games make my child more aggressive?

3) Will spending too much time in front of a screen affect my child’s social skills?

4) What are the possible risks associated with my child going online?

5) Will spending too much time in front of a screen affect my child’s education?

6) Should I be concerned at the range of content available to my children on TV?

The purpose of our responses to the questions is to provide summaries of some of the research and information that’s out there. We don’t make any claim to be completely systematic in our approach but we have tried to provide a more nuanced view of some of the issues than is generally available. We don’t guarantee that we’ve looked at everything (there’s about 70 references to the literature – a drop in the ocean compared to the enormous amount that’s published in this area). As the media landscape changes so rapidly we have focused on research published in the last five years or so and a mix of academic and less academic reports, with an emphasis on open access literature so that interested readers can follow it up and see for themselves whether their interpretation matches ours.

We haven’t provided specific recommendations or guidelines because hard and fast rules aren’t very helpful. It’s useful to know what some of the issues are and where to go for more information but ultimately parents need to exercise their own judgement. As we found, it’s difficult to write parent-friendly summaries of research that don’t over-simplify the findings. We tried to present a reasonably balanced view that will help parents make up their own minds and would rather think about responses to the issues as representing a spectrum of opinion than as an argument with two sides - but no doubt some readers will feel that we’ve come down too heavily on one side or the other.

There’s a huge amount of debate surrounding the potential benefits and risks associated with children’s media use. Turning to what the research says can help – but, as we point out, just because it’s described as research doesn’t mean that it’s neutral. Studies that don’t show any effect tend not to get published - and certainly don’t become the subject of media interest. The 22-page review starts with a brief discussion of what we mean by ‘research’ in this context, sketching out some of the main types of research in the area of children and media (surveys, experiments, real life studies and systematic reviews) and being frank about where we’re coming from.

See what you think. The review is available on the Children's Media Foundation parent portal as Parents’ FAQs on Children’s Use of Media. Each section needs to be downloaded separately but the document has live links to all the open access literature cited (ie available to the public). Alternatively, a single pdf can be downloaded from Lydia's site as Six questions that parents ask about children’s use of digital media: a review.

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