About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

As a parent of two young children resistant to brushing their teeth, I am well aware that the Hey Duggee toothbrushing song now has 10 million hits on YouTube (hundreds of which were from my bathroom). Smartphones and screens are engaging for children and helpful to parents, so it’s not surprising that screen time is on the rise, particularly when so many parents in recent years have had to deal with the unusual pressures of combining work and childcare.

Anecdotally, screen time for children massively increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, driven, as parents told The Guardian, by nurseries and schools closing and fewer opportunities for outdoor play. Research published by Ofcom found that in 2020, nearly half of children aged 3-4 had their own tablet and 86 percent watched content on YouTube.

In early 2022, there is now a large market of apps with content created for toddlers and preschoolers (see YouTube Kids, CBeebies, Hungry Caterpillar Play School and Peekaboo Barn). In a survey by Ofcom, nearly a third of the parents of preschoolers said that they found it hard to control their children’s screen time.

If smartphone apps and games were designed to promote parent-child interactions that support toddlers’ development, then high rates of technology use could be a positive trend. But currently most video streaming services, apps and games for preschoolers are either geared towards passive viewing, or are designed to be used by a child in isolation. Now is the moment for a reboot – to re-evaluate how these tools could be used in homes, and whether there is untapped potential to support children’s development.

If smartphone apps and games were designed to promote parent-child interactions that support toddlers’ development, then high rates of technology use could be a positive trend

While this kind of toddler tech may be helpful to busy parents, it is probably not as beneficial to children’s development as offline interactions, and could be harmful if used excessively. Some studies have suggested that passively watching TV and YouTube may be having an adverse effect on toddlers – replacing the human interactions they need to develop their language and social skills. But while the American Association of Paediatrics recommends limited screen time for young kids, the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health does not recommend any specific limits for toddlers.

So how concerned should we be about the impact of screen time on young children? The jury is out. Generally, it is thought that if parents’ or children’s interactions with smartphones are replacing interactions with each other, leading either to distracted parents or preoccupied, unresponsive children, this could reduce opportunities for the types of communication and play that best support development. There is also a risk, highlighted by the World Health Organisation, that overuse of screens encourages sedentary behaviour without the comparable cognitive benefits of reading or storytelling.

However, this does not mean that technology use by parents and young children is inevitably harmful. If the main concern is that screen time is replacing learning experiences and social interactions, perhaps the problem is how we’re using technology with young children, not screens themselves, which are here to stay. What if digital tools were designed to support interactions between parents and young children, to actively promote their social skills, language and early numeracy?

For example, the Easy Peasy app sends parents of children aged 0-5 evidence-informed tips and activities to do with their child. An evaluation by Oxford University found that when parents of children aged 2-5 used the app for three months, there were some positive effects on children’s concentration, determination and decision-making. Rather than encouraging either parents or children to interact with their screens, Easy Peasy provides ideas about how they can interact with each other.

Recent academic articles have identified a gap in the market for smartphone apps that actively engage both parents and young children – examples might include interactive story apps with activities for children, or games designed to boost vocabulary or numeracy with an active role for both the parent and the child.

According to a review in Frontiers of Psychology well-designed multimedia stories can be as beneficial to learning as sharing traditional books. If multimedia stories and games for toddlers were designed to promote active adult involvement, could their impact be enhanced even further?

As part of Nesta’s fairer start mission, we have made it our goal to eliminate the school readiness gap for disadvantaged children by 2030. In early 2022, we will be mapping parenting tech to explore digital technologies, giving further insight into their potential to support the development of young children.