The Role of Technology in the Lives of Children


Oct 10, 2014

Preschoolers in a classroom looking at a tablet with their teacher

Photo by Chris Futcher/iStock

Technology has become an important part of daily life for young children. On a typical day, children ages 3–5 spend an average of four hours with technology, and technology use is increasing among children of all ages.

Still, not everyone agrees that technology should be in early childhood education. Debates about the role of technology in early childhood education are ongoing, with some providers, parents, and others yet to be convinced about the potential benefits of technology.

In a new policy brief, we identify several goals that can help guide technology use in early childhood education. We developed the findings during a one-day forum in Pittsburgh last May, convened by RAND and PNC Grow Up Great, about technology use in early childhood education.

Among the key findings:

  • Add technology to the education toolbox. Research shows that technology can be useful in supporting learning, but only if providers and families use it in a thoughtful and intentional way. Children from low-income families face the greatest challenges in skills development due to disparities that appear at a young age, and they might experience the greatest benefits from these new opportunities for learning and engagement.
  • Support school readiness in digital literacy. With increasingly higher standards for technology use in early elementary grades, all children, particularly low-income children, could benefit from acquiring basic technology literacy skills in early childhood education settings to ensure they are ready for the classroom.
  • Narrow the digital divide. The gap between disadvantaged students and their peers in access to and use of technology — the “digital divide” — is significant. Low-income families are less likely to have access to most types of technology, and children in low-income families are more likely to use technology in ways that are passive and iso­lated. This may prevent children from gaining exposure to important tools for learning and skill growth. In early childhood education settings, low-income children can access technology that is not available in the home, and they can be taught to use technology in ways that are more likely to result in skill growth and learning, thereby addressing disparities in use.
  • Expand resources for teachers and families. Educators, who often receive substantially less professional development than they need, could use technology to access virtual communities, find teaching materials, watch exemplars and create networks. Similarly, technology provides families with new opportunities to engage in their children's education and increase communication with their children and with providers.

The policy brief is the first of five to be released over the next two months examining key questions related to technology use in early childhood education.

The four subsequent policy briefs will examine how to best define developmentally appropriate technology use in early childhood education; how to support developmentally appropriate technology use through devices, software, connectivity, and other components of technology infrastructure; the best ways to prepare providers to integrate technology appropriately, intentionally, and productively into early childhood education settings; and how parents and other family members can play a role in the use of technology in early childhood education.

Lindsay Daugherty is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Rafiq Dossani is a senior policy researcher and director of the Center for Asia Pacific Policy at RAND.