Addressing Childhood Developmental Milestones in the Digital Environment

Dr Rahul Chodhari, a consultant paediatrician and Dr Joshua Hodgson, a foundation trainee based in London provide their personal view on the use of digital media in childhood, prompted by an article published in The Times.

The digital environment was designed by, and for, adults. But with children now constituting over one third of its 3-billion users it is imperative that the environment is made appropriate for them also. It has evolved over short decades; and we must keep pace.

In an article published in The Times (‘Curb children’s use of technology for their own good, urge experts’ - December 2017), Baroness Kidron et al. highlight that it is generalist, and impractical, to simply separate adults and children.

The article was published to mark the launch of The Digital Childhood report – a report authored by psychologists and other experts from institutions including Oxford University and Imperial College London. It was commissioned by 5Rights which is an initiative for youth digital rights launched two years ago by the children’s rights campaigner Baroness Kidron.

The authors explain that the risks of the digital environment change as a child becomes increasingly independent, mature, self-conscious and social. Of course it is equally important to highlight that the opportunities that the digital world offers alter as a child develops. Whilst a pre-school child may be developing their imagination and creative play, an adolescent may be reinforcing their social identity. The authors ask that age-appropriate risks should be reflected in government policy, education and commercial industry, and this is equally applicable for age-appropriate opportunity.

It is a difficult balance: One third of parents and children report arguments regarding devices on a daily basis. The rise of the digital environment has been associated with obesity, insomnia, eye problems and poor mental health. But without it a child is significantly disadvantaged.

As a parent, what can I do?

  • Be aware. Consider the risks and opportunities for your child at their developmental stage
  • Training and education are preferable to removal of devices or blanket restrictions particularly as children develop maturity and digital literacy
  • Start early – digital habits are developed from a young age – and support transition through developmental stages
  • Achieve all this using reward (e.g. star chart) not punishment
  • If worried, seek advice from other parents, school or healthcare professionals

The digital environment generates both risks and opportunities for our children. We must support them throughout their development to shift the balance towards the latter.

The RCPCH will be producing a position statement on digital media this year. For updates, keep checking the Health Policy pages of the RCPCH website.