PARIS - Starting Strong: Empowering Young Children in the Digital Age presents new evidence and identifies key challenges for the early childhood education and care sector. It also presents and assesses policies that have worked in 30 countries.
The main findings of the report include:
- Most countries are making efforts to promote safe and responsible use of technologies in early education settings. By contrast, a minority (28%) prioritise keeping these settings “digital-free”. Physical, social and emotional harms, threats to privacy, and the growth of digital divides are the main concerns related to technology use with children.
- In many countries, conflicting or incomplete guidelines regarding technology use with young children means early education and care professionals can take different approaches of varying quality. Only 54% of countries reported having guidelines for staff. Clearer guidelines and meaningful training for staff would help support children to learn and protect themselves against digital risks, and to use digital technology creatively.
- Around half of surveyed countries have specific goals for early digital literacy development in early education curriculum frameworks. Many countries are taking steps to level the playing field from an early age and close the ‘digital skills divide’ – particularly for girls and disadvantaged children. This can be done in an age-appropriate manner, for example without passive exposure to screens.
- Countries can better mobilise digital tools to improve opportunities for professional learning and collaboration. Only 19% of countries currently fund coaching or mentoring activities using digital tools. Countries can also develop and use data to monitor the quality of the sector, which could lead to improvements that benefit children.
Opportunities and risks of digitalisation for early childhood education and care
The rapid development of digitalisation provides opportunities for early childhood education and care (ECEC) including new learning materials and environments, new ways for staff development and collaboration, and strengthened links between institutions and parents. At the same time, digitalisation has created challenges to young children’s lives. From concerns about screen time to the misuse of children’s data, ECEC faces many dilemmas and difficult issues. This report sets out the opportunities and risks of digital technology for young children and identifies five key challenges and potential responses for the sector.
At its heart, the report makes clear that ECEC should use digital technologies to improve the quality of services and prepare young children to understand the dangers and benefits of these technologies. It outlines a roadmap to help policymakers take a consistent approach to digitalisation in ECEC and support young children to thrive in the digital age. The report summarises findings from a two-year policy review that collected data from 30 countries and jurisdictions in 2022.
Better protecting young children in digital environments is an imperative The use of the internet, tablets and smartphones, social media and messaging apps have profoundly changed the lives of children around the world. As a result, many governments have concerns about the impact of digital technologies on the development of young people. This is reflected in policy agendas for early childhood that largely focus on the risks to young children and how to deal with the challenges. Physical, social and emotional harms related to technology, threats to privacy, and the growth of digital divides are among the main worries, according to a survey carried out for this report.
At the moment, most countries and jurisdictions focus on promoting safe and responsible use of technologies in ECEC settings, rather than adopting restrictive approaches such as blanket bans on digital devices. However, there are often conflicting or incomplete guidelines and regulations for helping young children to learn how to protect themselves against digital risks, as well as to use digital technology in safe and creative ways.
This means professionals may adopt different approaches – of varying quality – depending on their own ability and initiative. What guidance is available is usually targeted at parents, not ECEC professionals. And less than half of those surveyed currently evaluate the use of digital technologies in ECEC settings as part of their quality monitoring frameworks.
There is growing recognition across countries of the need to engage digital service providers to ensure children’s digital safety. However, countries have more frequently introduced privacy regulations than requested providers to adopt ‘safety-by-design’ approaches to promote age-appropriate content and activities. Many countries also lack oversight bodies with specific responsibilities on digital safety for children.
Digital divides among children can be tackled from an early age
Closing the digital skills divide is a key reason for introducing children to digital literacy at an early age. Girls and disadvantaged children are often less likely to pursue careers in technology-intensive fields compared to boys and more advantaged children. Closing that gap is a policy priority for many countries, survey data show. For example, by helping to spark young girls’ interest in technology-intensive fields or by informing parents about age-appropriate digital practices for young children. However, almost half of those surveyed do not have specific goals for early digital literacy development in ECEC curriculum frameworks. And many report large differences in the quality and types of digital resources available at ECEC settings. This means many countries are missing out on an opportunity to level the playing field and help all children reap the benefits of digitalisation.
While young children’s exposure to digital technologies typically starts in home environments, ECEC can play an important role in helping all children begin to learn about risks, gain an appreciation for how computers work, and how technology can support play, creativity and self-expression. This can also be done without direct exposure to screens, for example though the use of robotic kits and unplugged materials such as puzzles and cards. However, this approach is not broadly supported by governments. ECEC professionals and quality assurance are key to a policy roadmap The ECEC workforce is essential to advancing policy responses to digitalisation. All ECEC staff need foundational training to understand how to use digital technologies in an effective way. Staff with specific responsibilities can be trained to develop enhanced and specialised skills. Most countries and jurisdictions surveyed provide some funding or training support for ECEC staff to develop their digital competencies, but few require this as part of initial preparation programmes for ECEC teachers. Opportunities for professional development through online platforms are also available in many countries, but only a minority support digital tools for mentoring or coaching.
Digital technology can also facilitate communication with families and their engagement in ECEC activities. While this is increasingly happening, there is limited evidence that the overall quality of interactions has improved thanks to technology. The available training on how to establish meaningful communication with parents through digital technology is also generally lacking. Improving these forms of engagement with families can be particularly important for ECEC centres serving disadvantaged children.
Robust data can also inform and strengthen policy design and monitoring in the ECEC sector. A large majority of those surveyed have in place data systems that maintain individual-level information about their ECEC sector. However, the breath of coverage of these systems varies. Data sharing becomes even more important when responsibilities for different services or age groups are split across multiple actors.
Going forward, digitalisation will continue to have an impact on education and learning, and the way young children interact, play and engage with wider society. Countries should have clear goals for ECEC to respond to digitalisation, so that it offers a first opportunity to help all young children be safe and flourish in the digital world. These goals should recognise the complexities of the sector, involve all relevant stakeholders, be informed by the best available evidence, and be implemented in a flexible manner.
For the full report, visit: Starting-Strong-VII_embargo17April2004.pdf