It’s a question a lot of parents ask themselves continually as a child moves up the developmental ladder from toddler to teen to young adult.
How is technology, omnipresent as it is, really impacting my kid?
University of Washington Professor Katie Davis not only has answers to that question at every age and stage of childhood, but she has evidence-based ideas on how parents and communities can support kids’ healthy use of digital media as well. In her new book “Technology’s Child: Digital Media’s Role in the Ages and Stages of Growing Up,” Davis lays out the research on the role of technology at different points on the developmental spectrum. Using that evidence, Davis provides concrete guidance to parents, teachers and even technology designers on how to best support a child’s healthy interface with digital media. The book hit bookstore shelves this week.
An important message for adults
Davis, who teaches about both child development and technology design, covers the full range of childhood in this packed review. Despite the width of that developmental spread, the book is driven by a single overriding message, laid out in the introduction and revisited often in its pages:
“The process of development is going well when children experience a sense of initiative and ownership over their actions, a feeling that they can succeed and grow, and a sense of belonging and connection with the people in their communities,” Davis writes. “This happens when children engage in experiences — including technology-based experiences — that are self-directed and community supported.”
Self-directed technology experiences are voluntary, Davis writes. That means they are launched, sustained and ended by the child. They give young people “a sense of initiative and ownership over their actions,” Davis writes.
Community supported interactions
Davis also offers a clear picture of what she means by “community supported:”
“Children and adolescents don’t use technology in a vacuum. Their digital experiences are embedded in broader contexts of support — sometimes surrounding the technology, sometimes within it. Community support can come from family members, peers, teachers and any other cultural community that children participate in,” Davis writes. “Friends might work together to design a video game in the kid-friendly programming language Scratch. A trusted adult or sibling might help a teen process and navigate troubling or hurtful speech they experience online.”
“These surrounding community supports make young people’s technology experiences better,” Davis stresses.
Cultural and social context play a role
The call for self-directed and community-supported technology use is equally directed – from toddlers just beginning to navigate the physical world separate from their parents to teens and young adults striving to identify who they are as autonomous individuals in the world and what they want to be in that larger society.
At each developmental stage, the author details what occurs when technology and kids interact. She describes how a child’s cultural and social backgrounds as well as their unique personal characteristics inform their tech interactions. She shows how self-directed, community-supported digital media use differs from mandated, restrictive and unsupported use. For example, she explains that parents’ technology restrictions may be interpreted by tweens and teens as a lack of trust or as hypocrisy, thus creating an unwanted wedge between parent and child.
The research in this book feels dense at places but critical and timely throughout. And Davis’ interweaving of her own experiences as a parent helps to bring this topic out of the weighty towers of academia and into the world of lived experience.
The 3 Ds
Perhaps the most useful part of each chapter in the book is the last section, entitled “Taking Stock of the Three Ds.”
In these 2- to 3-page chapter-end summaries, Davis reiterates what is going on developmentally with a child at a particular stage and how technology plays into it. She then invites readers to go deeper into themselves and their kids’ belief systems and experiences by asking critical questions.
Finally, she speaks directly to technology designers, providing concrete ways to develop community-supported technology that enhances rather than harms developmental growth. For example, in early childhood designers can best support the development of executive function (the primary developmental growth area at this stage) by promoting top-down rather than bottom-up attention — that is, by allowing kids to drive the pace of their interactions with a game, app or other technology. And, Davis adds, designers must avoid design abuses, especially one-way or “parasocial” lures — those bells and whistles and prizes that encourage a child to keep playing or engaging with a piece of technology rather than moderating or ending engagement to protect their own well-being.
Throughout the book Davis is predominantly speaking to parents, teachers and communities supporting neurotypical kids. But the author does address neurodiversity at some level in the section entitled “Designing for Diverse Ways of Learning” and touches on it again when she highlights reserarch on autistic tweens’ experiences in the Autcraft gaming community.
An important guide for parents and other caring adults
In this day and age, it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape technology. It is pervasive and children are exposed to it from birth.
“Technology’s Child” is a must-read for parents or anyone who engages with children. The significance of digital media’s impact on a child’s development is clearly outlined. Perhaps more importantly, the guidance offered to adults involved in or desiring to support a child’s technology experience is evidence-based and, in this writer’s opinion, critical to a child’s successful growth from curious rugrat into healthy, well-balanced, community-connected adulthood.
Dr. Katie Davis is Associate Professor at the University of Washington Information School, where she is a founding member and Co-Director of the UW Digital Youth Lab. She is the coauthor of The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, Imagination in a Digital World (with Howard Gardner) and Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring (with Cecilia Aragon).