A world first longitudinal study into how digital technologies impact children from birth is currently underway at a new research centre focused on the effects of tech on kids.
The Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child was formally launched last month by Education Minister Jason Clare who said it was “another example of Australian research at its finest”.
“The centre will integrate child health, education, and digital and social connectedness to support young children growing up in a rapidly changing digital age,” Clare said.
“It will increase Australia’s research capacity and competitiveness and puts us at the forefront of research into young children and digital technology.”
The centre, which will receive $34.9 million in funding from the Australian Research Council over seven years, will look to create an evidence base for government policy along with helping parents and educators better understand how to respond to digital technologies.
Part of the centre’s aims is to address myths and conflicting information that gets bandied about, often to do with how technology is seen as an inherently bad thing for young minds.
“There are a lot of myths and opinions out there about how technology is harmful to children,” Professor Susan Danby, director of the Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child, told Information Age.
“All children, even very young children, should have opportunities to engage with digital technologies.
“We might look at things like talking to grandparents on FaceTime as fine because of the way technology is being engaged with and used.”
High levels of digital technology use, or ‘screen time’, are often quoted alongside rising levels of behavioural issues and/or mental health complaints among young people.
A study from mental health non-profit the Black Dog Institute this week noted a correlation between teenage Australians self-reporting depression and high levels of screen time.
Dr Aliza Werner-Seidler, a clinical psychologist with the Black Dog Institute was careful not to speculate on the nature of that correlatory relationship.
“We don't know whether young people who experience depression are more likely to be on their phones or screens, or whether spending more time on phones and screens is likely to increase the risk for depression," she told the ABC.
The centre hopes to give parents, educators, and policymakers clear, well-informed guidance about how young people interact with technology and the effects it has on them.
It’s taking what Professor Danby called a “transdisciplinary” approach to research – one that involves researchers across fields like neuroscience, sociology, and computer science.
At the centre of this research is a seven-year long study of how 3,000 families grow alongside technology from the birth of a child.
“A lot of the other research into technology and children is often started in the preschool or lower primary school years, but we're actually starting right at birth,” Professor Danby told Information Age.
“We want to know what kind of technology do they have in their homes, who they using it with, and what kind of relationships are involved in the technology’s use.
“Because it’s over seven years, we’ll be able to track and see how things change with rapidly advances in technology.”