Children and Digital Media: Latest Research Studies and Practices in Early Childhood Education and Care Q&A

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◆Objective of Child Research Net

Child Research Net (CRN) is a non-profit, Internet-based child research institute. We have designed CRN's English site to bring together people concerned about children and to offer a forum for innovative interdisciplinary discussion. Our vast network of professionals, researchers and educators around the world will bring you articles, reliable data and the latest research in English, mainly on Japanese children and youth that are not otherwise available.

CRN's aim is to exchange information and knowledge on the Internet with child experts and researchers worldwide and pursue the happiness of children from the biological and social perspectives of Kodomogaku, Child Science, in its consideration of children.

CRN wants to open up the field of child study and expand perspectives on how to communicate with the new generation. In addition, we hope that these discussions will help further the understanding of culture, youth and society. We invite all who are interested in the problem of children and youth today to participate in CRN.


◆What is Child Science?

Solving the issues that affect children today requires research that transcends the usual disciplinary boundaries. Child Science, based on this view of Dr. Noboru Kobayashi, CRN Honorary Director and the founder of CRN, takes such an interdisciplinary approach. Children are born as biological beings and grow into social human beings through the interaction of parents, the home, and society. Child Science is a human science that draws on the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

On February 17, 2020, we hosted an online symposium under the theme of "Children and Digital Media: Latest Research Studies and Practices in Early Childhood Education and Care." During the live streaming, the following speakers answered questions received from viewers in Japan and China:

(Answering speakers)
* Titles and affiliations are as of the time of the symposium and QA session.
Tomomi Sato (Associate Professor, Aichi Shukutoku University)
Hiroshi Hotta (Professor, Sonoda Women's University)
Hirotsugu Tazume (Associate Professor, Kyoto University of Education)
Takehiro Morita (Professor, Kansai Gaidai University)
Yumiko Matsuyama (Professor, Shitennouji University Junior College)
Megumi Nakamura (Associate Professor, Kio University)

* For further information about the symposium, please read our report.

General Questions

Q: I think that parents' negative feelings towards digital media stem from their worries about children's behavior becoming passive due to the use of such media. Is there any specific consideration by kindergartens with regard to children's usage? (from a viewer in Japan)

A- Professor Hotta: It is rare to see the use of tablets and other digital devices for children's individual play at kindergartens/daycare centers. Childcare workers generally use digital media to achieve a specific learning target, such as shifting from individual play to group play to develop children's collaborative skills.


Q: Do children get to use one tablet each at kindergartens? If so, how much do they cost? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Hotta: Although some kindergartens let each child have one tablet to use a drawing application, etc., most kindergartens only allow a group of four to five children to share one tablet, if there are 30 children in the class. Generally, one tablet costs about 40,000 to 50,000 yen, and the teacher of each class supervises the use of them.
With regard to the kindergarten under our research project, one or two tablets are issued to each class. About ten children will share one tablet. We lend the kindergarten these tablets free of charge because they are for research use. The kindergarten retains these tablets in the nursery room, and presumably teachers take responsibility for their use and conditions. If there are any technical problems with them, the project researchers will handle the matter.

A- Professor Matsuyama: Our research team lends tablets free of charge as well; therefore, each class shares one or two tablets.

A- Associate Professor Nakamura: In the case of a daycare center owned and run by a social welfare corporation, one tablet is given to each child. The total cost is considerable, consisting of 45 tablets (each cost about 50,000 yen) plus the costs of projectors and LAN facilities. The director of the kindergarten created a special budget to introduce the use of tablets from the beginning. However, I think it is very difficult for other public kindergartens to do the same.


Q: What is the main purpose of introducing tablets at the stage of kindergarten? To take and share photos? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Hotta: The use of tablets in early childhood education and care does not mean that conventional childcare practices will be replaced by them. In the context where more and more diversified approaches are required for childcare, we can effectively utilize tablets as one such approach, for example, to explain something to children or let children reflect on their activities. At the same time, we should ensure that children comply with rules to prevent their excessive use of tablets.

A- Professor Matsuyama: For Japanese kindergartens, there are various purposes to use tablets at the stage of early childhood education. Some kindergartens introduce tablets as a new tool to develop children's presentation skills or self-expression activities, while others use tablets to promote the acquisition of new knowledge and skills such as literacy and numeracy.
The kindergarten I mentioned in this report accepted our request to use tablets as a tool to help children visualize their feelings and ideas, and communicate what they learned to their peers and teachers. We also asked the kindergarten to use tablets as a new tool for children's self-expression activities in addition to conventional ones such as drawing and playing music. Furthermore, as we cannot provide a tablet for each child, we expect that this will provide an opportunity to learn how to share one tablet with other peers and do some collaborative work activities.
When we interviewed teachers and asked if they had any concerns about the use of tablets, . they said they were at first worried that children might become over-reliant on photographs shown on the tablet, which would delay the development of verbal presentation skills. Eventually, however, teachers realized that children who had problems speaking in front of others were actually encouraged by those photographs to express their feelings. Through their experiences in communicating with others using tablets, children learned the enjoyment of smooth communication and gradually benefited from the use of tablets as a tool to communicate their feelings and discoveries to others. They even learned to think more carefully how to communicate their ideas more effectively with tablets.

A- Associate Professor Nakamura: The most important objective of using tablets at the stage of kindergarten education is to help children learn how to process information by themselves through their experiences in using digital media based on their interests and curiosity. This should occur before the stage of primary school where subjective learning activities will start. From a short-term perspective, each kindergarten may have different objectives. However, with researchers' participation, it could be possible to direct such a long-term objective.

Digital Media and Learning

Q: I think that there are two ways of using digital media. One is for collaborative activities, and the other for individual activities. One of the benefits of using digital media after the stage of elementary school is to let children learn on their own according to their respective abilities, which is called "Adaptive Learning." I would like to know more about how this "Adaptive Learning" is utilized in early childhood education and care. (from a viewer in Japan)

A- Professor Hotta: To realize this learning approach using digital media according to each child's abilities, it is necessary to acquire accumulated educational data of each child at schools as well as at home. In the current early childhood education industry in Japan, there is no educational environment established for accumulating such digital data. Therefore, it is difficult to realize such an approach at the moment.


Q: Are live stream content and online lessons suitable for children's learning? For example, many young children are using "Douyin" (Chinese version of TikTok), which offers various learning contents. (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Matsuyama: I think it is suitable for some children and may not be suitable for some others. Personally speaking, live streaming and online lessons seem to be effectively utilized depending on their content and situations. According to a research survey on television viewing conducted in Japan, it is revealed that television viewing is beneficial for children's learning. For example, children watch TV programs with their parents and talk about the content, or exchange impressions and opinions with their peers after watching TV programs. From now on, I think it is necessary to study the effects of interactive media such as online lessons in addition to the effects of television viewing.

A- Associate Professor Nakamura: In particular, at the stage of early childhood where children learn unconsciously, it is also important to create an atmosphere where children are motivated to interact even through online lessons. For example, parents should watch online lessons with their child and share feelings of happiness and surprise with the child.


Q: Is there any difference between tablet learning and traditional learning? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Hotta: I suppose what you mean by "traditional learning" is learning in conventional early childhood education and care. The use of tablets in early childhood education and care generally aims for collaborative learning using the camera function. Meanwhile, the use of tablets in families is mainly for video viewing and online workbooks. In any case, it is important to create time to think for children depending on situations, in the same way as traditional learning. However, this may be difficult with the current application technologies for tablets. I think there is the possibility to realize this if AI technologies evolve sufficiently to make decisions according to children's situations.


Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of tablets in education compared to conventional education methods? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Matsuyama: In our research project, we introduced tablets as a tool to visualize conventional early childhood education and care, not as a tool to enhance children's learning. Therefore, it is not appropriate to compare tablet learning with conventional education methods. Please think about it this way: we simply incorporate the use of tablets into the traditional methods of early childhood education and care.

AI Robots

Q: I would like to know whether there is any advantage of communicating with AI robots. Is this more beneficial for children than that of communicating with other peers? (from a viewer in Japan)

A- Associate Professor Tazume/Professor Morita: We examine the use of AI robots to be incorporated into the environment of early childhood education and care based on the following assumptions:

  1. In the near future, various digital media and AI devices will become widely used in our society. Robots are more appealing to children compared to other AI devices. Therefore, communicating with robots can be an effective starting point to develop the literacy of AI technologies.
  2. Diversity is becoming more and more important in our society. We may need to communicate with someone different from ourselves. Through communication with robots, children may acquire the skills to identify the characteristics of such unknown companions and adjust their communication style according to their characteristics.
  3. It should be noted, however, that interpersonal communication and other necessary experiences are still important for children in early childhood education and care. Communicating with robots cannot be a substitute for such interpersonal experiences. In particular, children's cognitive/non-cognitive skills in early childhood will be developed based on their enriched experiences and educational environments sufficient for such experiences. Communicating with robots will not supersede actual experiences; rather, this will be added as a new element to conventional experiences.

As discussed above, communicating with robots will provide children with various experiences different from that of communicating with other peers. It should be noted, however, communicating with other peers is still very important for children in early childhood and cannot be replaced by communication with robots.


Q: I heard that humanoid AI robots are typical to Japan. There may be differences in communication styles and effects between humanoid robots and machine-like robots such as AI speakers. (from a viewer in Japan)

A- Professor Morita: It's the first time for us to hear that humanoid robots are typical to Japan. We may want to explore the distinctiveness of its ideological background. From the perspective of developmental psychology, there have been numerous research studies regarding the use of robots in the psychological development of babies. As humanoid robots have specific characteristics recognizable for babies, a lot of researchers conducted research on the effects of humanoid robots on babies' development. In contrast, if babies grow up while communicating with a non-living, machine-like robot, such as an AI speaker, from the time they were born, we will seek to understand the meaning of language for babies (Isn't language a human-specific tool?) and how babies recognize such language (although this kind of research is probably thought to be ethically inappropriate).

A- Associate Professor Tazume: Infants look for human characteristics in things that are not human. This is called "Animism," a way of understanding the world using acquired knowledge (=human characteristics). Therefore, if young children use interactive media, it may be easier for them to understand humanoid robots that have human-like appearance and movements. Furthermore, humanoid robots have "physical movements" different from AI speakers. Young children tend to have an interest in things that are more responsive to their actions. Considering these facts, humanoid robots can be easily accepted by children as the initial experience of interactive media.


Q: How many kindergartens are using AI robots in Japan? As far as I know, AI robots can adapt to new environments based on their unique algorithm. Is there any hidden risk in using AI robots at kindergartens? For example, is there any possibility that AI robots would utter harmful words towards young children? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Morita: I think very few kindergartens use AI robots in early childhood education and care in Japan. As with our research, only a few trial experiments are being conducted, assuming a future society with AI robots.
In contrast, the number of companies introducing robots in certain service industries is increasing in recent years. For example, robots are often used for the hotel check-in process and for restaurant reception services.
Considering the usage of robots in such service industries, and based on survey results of famous speaking machines in Japan, there is almost no risk (except for unintentional cases) that robots will utter harmful words towards young children. Moreover, I believe that all robots are invented and developed considering this point. Even if a person speaks cruel words to a highly sophisticated AI speaker, the speaker will not utter cruel words in return. Therefore, it can be said that the verbal communication function of robots is developed with due care in Japan.
For other hidden risks in using AI robots at kindergartens, I could point out that young children tend to show animistic behavior (to give lifelike qualities to things that are not human) or childlike cruelty when using robots. However, we can see such behavior when they are using any other toys. Such anthropomorphism probably triggers children's violent speech and behavior.

A- Associate Professor Tazume: About "RoBoHoN" (produced by SHARP CORPORATION) we mentioned in this report, the developer created the robot to not use violent and inappropriate words towards children. I believe that, not only RoBoHoN, but all digital media intended or likely to be used by children are also developed with such care. However, if the robot does not respond to children's actions as intended, children may easily feel stressed or get bored.


Q: Does the use of AI robots have any negative effects due to children's communications with only robots? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Morita: When we were conducting research studies, we did not observe any substantial negative impact. However, there is the possibility of finding emotional expressions and behavior different from those emerging from interpersonal communications. It should be noted that there may be various perceptions about the positive or negative effects of AI robots, depending on the passage of time and cultural background. For example, how people feel about the use of words depends on the time we live in. Even our perception about interpersonal communications as well as the use and meaning of words are changing over time. Therefore, depending on personal interpretation, some people may think that certain words and behavior different from our common sense will negatively affect children, while others may think there will be a positive effect.

A- Associate Professor Tazume: Generally, interactions with AI robots are considered beneficial for the development of AI media literacy and communication skills. However, I believe that AI robots cannot be a substitute for interpersonal communications. We should think that communicating with AI robots is somewhat different from actual communications between humans. It is useful for children to have various experiences through both digital media and human contact. It should be noted, however, if children spend too much time on the use of digital media or biased interests, they will lose precious time for communicating with humans. In particular, children tend to endlessly spend time on digital media, which may negatively affect the development of their self-restraint. Therefore, to a certain extent, the involvement of adults will be necessary for children's use of digital media and time management.

Portfolio for Children's Development and Evaluation

Q: I think a portfolio is useful to record the development of children as well as evaluation data by children and parents. In this way, both children and parents can reflect on the development process, thereby building a feeling of accomplishment and self-esteem. (from a viewer in Japan)

A- Professor Matsuyama: By using ASCA, we hope that this application will help teachers, as well as children (or parents), evaluate children's development status, including photographs taken by children, and discover children's strength and potential from various aspects. In the next symposium, Associate Professor Sato will report the results of her research. This research is about a workshop where parents reflect on the development of their child, based on photographs taken by teachers. We also expect to be able to evaluate children from diverse viewpoints by the use of ASCA.

A- Associate Professor Nakamura: By sharing the children's development process and a feeling of accomplishment, it becomes possible to understand and share how they accomplished it, and provide support for building their self-esteem.


Q: I'm very interested in evaluations. I would like to know the relationship between "reflection" and "growth" in early childhood. (from a viewer in Japan)

A- Professor Matsuyama: The new Course of Study for Kindergartens and other official guidelines state that it is important to reflect on how children and teachers tried to achieve targets in educational activities, instead of evaluating whether educational activities were carried out as intended. It is also important to reflect on how children learned and experienced something that will enhance their development.
As we already use photographs taken by digital cameras to confirm the children's development process, we further plan to utilize the functions of ASCA to support teachers. For example, by using ASCA, childcare workers can create individual folders on the server PC to save photographs, and organize these photographs by tagging them. In this way, the burden will be reduced on teachers who need to organize and reflect on each child's photographs. By using this function, we hope that childcare workers will be able to smoothly check the development process of each child.


Q: I recognize great potential in using digital devices that can visualize the significance (and reflection) of the relationship between children's development and the involvement of teachers. I would like to know how they share the development of each child with their parents and utilize it in early childhood education and care. (from a viewer in Japan)

A- Professor Matsuyama: In the kindergarten under our research project, teachers had already been utilizing digital devices before the use of tablets. They took photographs of children in activities with a digital camera, and then printed and displayed them on the bulletin board with the words children uttered during activities as well as comments from teachers. In this way, they shared these photographs with parents to see the activities and development of children at the kindergarten. After they started using tablets, photographs taken by children were added. Teachers said, in an informal interview, that they could convey children's interests and curiosity in a visualized way to parents more effectively than before. At kindergartens and daycare centers, childcare workers have regular parent-teacher interviews and daily conversations with parents when they drop-off/pick-up children. On such occasions, they utilize digital devices as a tool to share the developmental progress of children.
The use of digital devices in early childhood education and care will also help children recognize their individual interests by looking at photographs. This will promote conversations among children. Meanwhile, childcare workers pay more attention to the visualized children's interests and curiosity. Based on this, they reconstruct the learning environment and reschedule the process of early childhood education and care.


Q: I was very impressed by the comment of Associate Professor Nakamura that the metacognitive development of children may promote their self-motivation and development. (from a viewer in Japan)

A- Associate Professor Nakamura: Thank you very much for your interest in my comment. It is often said that children in early childhood are self-centered. However, children are able to objectively recognize themselves by observing situations and realizing how others look at them, with the help of tablets and other devices.
In the kindergarten under our research project, some teachers noticed that children would gradually be able to recognize their peers' feelings and imagine their situations, after they acquire the skill to accept what they recognize about themselves, instead of assigning an evaluation of good or bad. This is probably the process of acquiring socio-emotional skills. I think it is important for childcare workers to recognize the metacognitive development of children in early childhood, and based on this, to reconstruct the learning environment together with children.


Q: I think it would be wonderful if we can utilize digital media in a way to create a positive spiral: that is, sharing of evaluations will promote a feeling of accomplishment/growth among people (and children) involved in early childhood education and care, which will further promote a sense of ownership. (from a viewer in Japan)

A- Professor Matsuyama: I strongly agree with you. Thank you very much for your positive comment. I will continue to seek the configuration of digital systems that can smoothly create such a spiral.

A- Associate Professor Nakamura: I think it is advantageous to make use of evaluations as an indicator for the future, instead of merely considering them as evaluation results. We will make further efforts to utilize digital media as a tool for such use.

Rules for Using Digital Media

Q: Do kindergartens regulate the use of tablets? Can children freely use tablets at any time? Or are there some rules for using tablets? If so, how were the rules developed and managed? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Hotta: Most kindergartens allow children to use tablets with teachers. It is rare for children to freely use tablets in their free play. Internet connection is allowed only when it is necessary and when children use tablets with teachers. We set rules for using tablets from the outset. These rules are similar to those for other educational materials and toys: handle them with care and amicably share them with other peers. I heard from Associate Professor Nakamura that the kindergarten and daycare center under her research project set a password that should be kept confidential.

A- Professor Matsuyama: At the kindergarten under our research project, we asked teachers to manage the use of tablets. These tablets are generally placed in the play room where children can freely access them at any time.
All applications were uninstalled, apart from our newly developed "ASCA" and camera applications and a tool for viewing photographs. Certain applications that cannot be uninstalled are placed in one folder and kept out of sight of children.
All tablets are used offline. In cases where there is something that cannot be confirmed with the encyclopedia application provided by teachers, children are allowed to search online and print out necessary pages with the assistance of teachers.
We set rules for using tablets from the outset. These rules are similar to those of other educational materials and toys: handle them with care and amicably share them with other peers.
There should be no quarrels if a tablet is provided for each child. However, most kindergartens provide one tablet per class and there were disputes over the tablet in some kindergartens at the beginning. Each time, teachers intervened in children's squabbles and instructed them to think about how to share the tablet. After children became used to taking photographs with the tablet in daily activities, they stopped having disputes.
Teachers supervise children complying with the rules. When there is any problem in using tablets, they always let children discuss solutions and create and maintain new rules on their own. For example, one day, a child tried to take a picture of a friend who did not want to do so and made the friend angry. In this case, teachers first let these children talk about how they felt and thought, and then asked the entire class to discuss and find solutions. As a result, the children created a new rule: it is necessary to obtain consent for taking a picture and ask the person in the picture to check the resulting image.

A- Associate Professor Nakamura: In the kindergarten and daycare center under our research project, one tablet is issued to each child. A childcare worker with sufficient ICT expertise supervises the usage of tablets. Children are allowed to use tablets only in the "tablet time" session, and explore how to use tablets with childcare workers.


Q: Now, children can use a tablet and even search for things by themselves. Can you recommend any method for us to limit and control their viewing? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Hotta: It is possible to use parental control options on the device. However, parents also need to do research into a huge amount of ever-changing information in order to understand what they should control. At the same time, the development of media literacy on the user-side (children and childcare workers) is essential.

A- Professor Matsuyama: We introduced tablets to the kindergartens and daycare centers under our research project. Therefore, we set these tablets to be used offline as default and only used online with teachers. It is also possible to organize and control available applications in advance.
To regulate children's viewing online, I recommend the use of a filtering function that blocks harmful pages and advertisements from children. It is also important for parents to choose applications that are suitable or necessary for young children.

A- Associate Professor Nakamura: I think it is necessary to regulate children's viewing based on educational judgments, instead of allowing them to enter into the internet world straight away. However, it may be better for children to learn how to handle information through trial and error, rather than being told how to use it by adults.


Q: Kindergarten teachers in Japan use tablets to observe and record children's activities under discipline. Do they use tablets for purposes other than teaching (note from CRN: this probably means for private use)? Is there any way to prevent the private use of tablets by childcare workers? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Hotta: There is no way to prevent the private use of tablets by childcare workers. The use of tablets is entirely at their discretion.

A- Professor Matsuyama: I think I had already answered this question during the symposium. In the kindergarten under our research project, teachers only use tablets for teaching as well as for the preparation of educational materials, but never use them for private purposes. For kindergartens in Japan, the leakage of personal information is considered to be a very serious issue. All kindergartens prohibit teachers from taking devices (including tablets) containing children's personal information out of the premises.
Childcare workers understand that they should bear a heavy responsibility if any problem occurs as a result of private use: therefore, normally, it is rare to see their private use of tablets.
In my view, there are several ways to prevent the private use of tablets. One is to provide childcare workers with lectures on the handling of personal information and related legal requirements at the stage of their training. In this way, they will learn the importance of confidential obligations. They also need to understand that personal use of digital devices is prohibited at kindergartens. On the kindergarten side, it is necessary to strictly monitor the compliance with such prohibitions by childcare workers.


Q: Is there any way to prevent the excessive use of tablets? (from a viewer in China)

A- Professor Matsuyama: In the kindergarten under our research project, we asked them to freely use tablets. We didn't see any excessive use. This is probably because children enjoy nature and various open-air activities very much at the kindergarten. Sometimes, they even felt tablets were unnecessary. Another reason is that, since we asked teachers to take photographs of what children were interested in, tablets were not used unless children showed an interest in something. Furthermore, tablets were not issued to each child and thus they had to be shared. Therefore, both childcare workers and children intentionally avoided dominant use by any one child. This may be another reason for the absence of excessive use.

Use of Tablets at Home

Q: I'm quite concerned about the use of tablets at home. Is there any difference between use at home and use at kindergarten? Is there any negative impact of children's use of tablets on their interpersonal relationships and emotional development? (from a viewer in China)

A- Associate Professor Sato: Unlike the use of tablets at the kindergarten where children use tablets with other peers or under the teacher's instruction, the use of tablets at home is based on the assumption that a child uses a tablet alone. According to the previous study conducted by Sesame Street, however, parental involvement in the use of tablets at home will be beneficial for children's development. For example, parents can check application contents and enjoy using applications with the child. I recommend that parents recognize their important role in using tablets and instruct their children to use tablets for creative activities or enrichment of their experiences in the real world.

A- Professor Matsuyama: I think it is necessary to further discuss the difference between use at home and use at kindergarten with other researchers who are studying the use of tablets at home. Regarding the use of tablets at kindergarten, the potential negative impact can be reduced by the efforts of childcare workers in determining the number and use of tablets.

A- Associate Professor Nakamura: In my opinion, children can take advantage of using tablets either at home and at kindergarten, if they gain enjoyable experiences in sharing and using a tablet with parents, childcare workers, and other peers, rather than using it alone. Such positive effects may not be realized in a short period of time, so it is important to maintain this approach from a long-term perspective. To achieve this, we adults should seek ways of using tablets beneficial for children.


Q: I have a two-year-old daughter. I sometimes give my smartphone to her to quiet her down. When I try to take away the smartphone from her, she cries. So, we made a rule. She will return the smartphone to me when the alarm goes off. She follows this rule. However, I cannot help giving her my smartphone whenever I become busy. I don't know how to teach her the rule for using the smartphone. Please advise. (from a viewer in China)

A- Associate Professor Sato: It is very important to set family rules for children's smartphone use at home. However, parents should be careful not to merely impose adult-side rules but make their child think for themselves the suitable use of smartphones. This is very important because this will affect the child's future use of digital media.
For a two-year-old child, the ability to understand time is not yet developed. Please try to instruct her, gradually, to think about the rules for using a smartphone by herself, instead of just imposing the rules.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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