Can childhood screen use prepare children for a digital workforce?

In a world where we are surrounded by screens, and use screens to carry out so many of our daily activities, have you thought about what it might be like to try to manage without screens? When I think of the role screens play in my life, conducting my research, study, communicating with family, doing my banking, purchasing online (so much more during lockdown!), I realise that without screens, doing the things I need to do on a daily basis would be harder, take longer, and even, in some cases, be impossible.

But how important is using screens for primary school-aged children, at age 8? Their parents can take care of the logistics of children’s everyday lives – the children don’t need to put in a supermarket order for the food to appear on the table, or go online to top up their bus card. So if an 8-year old misses out on opportunities to use screens, or has minimal opportunities to use screens compared to their peers, does this matter?

I think that potentially it does, at least, for some types of activities. Allowing children to have high quality digital experiences with screens may allow them opportunities to build up digital skills, which later on in life may be a valuable asset in opening up job opportunities. After all, in many jobs today, much of the work is carried out using digital technologies, and this is only likely to increase as society become increasingly digitalised. Skills in searching and processing information, creating digital technologies, coding and programming are probably most useful, and likely to be valued in the workplace. Children who are get more experiences in doing these activities where these skills are needed are likely to become more competent in these areas, and be able to build on these schools as they progress through the school system.

Also, a lot of school work is now conducted using digital technologies. However, As with any learning area, schools cannot teach children all they need to know about screen technologies, and children’s experiences outside of school will ideally supplement what they are learning at school. The importance of entry level skills should not be overlooked – sending and receiving emails, how to do an internet search, key words, saving images, converting files from one form to another, making folders so that documents are easy to locate – all of these basic skills merge together to provide a foundation of skills that underpin the development of more advanced skills. Some practice of these skills at home may help children benefit more from a classroom programme that uses digital technologies.

This all sounds promising, but what worries me (and a lot of other people) is that some children miss out or have minimal opportunities to use digital technologies outside of school, or mainly just use them for entertainment. This may limit their ability to learn skills that will help them participate in digital learning at school, and may even their later educational and career prospects. In the Now we are Eight: Life in Middle Childhood Growing Up in New Zealand report, it is noted that 5% of children did not have access to a screen device outside of school. This can make it very difficult for them to access some of the benefits offered by digital technologies. This inequality based on access to devices themselves is what is referred to as a “first-order” digital divide. Unfortunately, equal access to digital technologies at school probably is not going to help overcome this “digital divide”, because in the meantime time, a “second-order” divide has been established, where the children who have had more access to experience with the screens have become more proficient and are at an advantage.

A second-order digital divide can also form when digital technologies are available in the home and there is an internet connection, but children, for whatever reason, engage less with screens and become less proficient compared to children who use screens more. This can be for a number of reasons. Parents may be restricting their children’s screen use. If so, I would suggest that if parents want to keep screen time down, that they perhaps restrict their children’s entertainment screen time but allow time to learn and practise skills like doing internet searches for educational purposes, and carrying out creative activities, e.g., products based in the information they find on the internet, creating art, coding and programming, etc. Admittedly, some children may not be drawn to screens as much as other children are, but perhaps they could be encouraged to work on some judiciously chosen worthwhile activities that could benefit their digital literacy, just as parents encourage their reluctant readers to read books to develop traditional literacy. Although children can potentially learn new digital skills independently, I would recommend parents keep an eye on what their children are doing on devices – this has the added benefit that parents and children can problem-solve and learn new skills together.

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