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Ensuring Healthy Development in the Digital Age

The Common Sense Early Childhood Toolkit helps children develop vital executive functioning skills.

A black caregiver helping a young Black child use a tablet.

As trends in media use continue to age down, kids are encountering technology and devices earlier in life. Their first eight years represent a critical window for brain development, in which early experiences can have lasting and cascading impacts. Our new Early Childhood Toolkit includes a series of workshops, based on extensive research at Common Sense Media, to address the challenges parents face in guiding their children's media use.

The Early Childhood Toolkit is designed to help family intermediaries in school districts and organizations host workshops that support parents and caregivers in developing their young children's executive function skills. We strive to show families how to use their experiences with media and technology as "everyday" moments that can strengthen parent-child relationships as well as foster the development of essential life skills. Our intention is to facilitate meaningful conversations around media and tech, and help families build healthier digital habits.

How does media impact young children's development?

Through age 8, children begin to develop important cognitive skills called executive functions (EF). Research shows that children with stronger EF skills are more likely to be successful in school and beyond. EF skills include:

  • Working memory, which means the ability to remember objects that are out of sight, or the qualities of a character in a movie, for example.
  • Inhibitory control, or the ability to focus by overcoming impulses and distractions.
  • Cognitive flexibility, which is the skill of "switching gears," like when children redirect their goals when transitioning from playtime to snack time.

To create the toolkit, we conducted an in-depth analysis of the relationships between children's use of high-quality media content and their screen time as it relates to developing executive functioning skills, with guidance and feedback from Ellen Galinsky. We uncovered the following three trends:

  • The role of caregivers in managing children's exposure is critical. For example, many studies have reported an association between high amounts of background television during infancy and early childhood and decreased EF skills later in life.
  • Not all digital media content is created equally. The consumption of developmentally inappropriate content has been linked to poorer EF skill development. For children younger than age 3, there are limits to how much they can learn from screen-based media.
  • High amounts of screen time is related to weaker EF skill development in young children. There is an especially strong link between increased screen time and poorer attention control and EF development.

How can communities use the Early Childhood Toolkit?

The toolkit includes six workshops with useful strategies and tips to share with parents and caregivers on how to support healthy childhood development, with and without the use of screens. The workshops are available in both English and Spanish, and include a facilitator's guide, videos, slides, activities, handouts, and conversation starters that promote discussion about the connection between media and technology, and EF skills. We also include background information on EF skills with examples as to how they pertain to early childhood development.

Topics and learning objectives in the six workshops include:

  • Raising healthy kids in a digital world: Think about how technology has changed in our lifetime, and discuss the benefits and challenges of raising kids in today's digital world.
  • Finding balance with media and tech use at home: Explore how to establish a healthy balance of activities for children, with and without media and tech.
  • Choosing high-quality media for your kids: Highlight the importance of choosing high-quality media content for kids, plus get resources to make informed decisions.
  • How to make meaningful family connections using media and tech: Learn about the benefits of co-using media with kids, and practice using questioning strategies to strengthen important early childhood skills.
  • Introducing online safety to young kids: Explore how to introduce digital citizenship and online safety to young children in an accessible way.
  • How to use media and tech to build life skills in young kids: Discuss and reflect on how media and technology can affect key areas of children's development.

We know it's so challenging to raise kids in today's online world, and we want to help build parents' confidence with this toolkit, by providing them with tools and strategies to help their kids develop the vital life skills they need to thrive.

Victoria Saylor

Victoria Saylor is the senior manager of education and community partnerships at Common Sense. She supports school districts and community-based organizations with tools and resources on how to engage families in digital citizenship and create healthier media habits at home.