Digital environment a big omission in federal government’s Early Years Strategy

Jun 6, 2024
Closeup of focused little boy using tablet computer and girl using smartphone.

The Albanese Government released its Early Years Strategy last month. Targeted at families, communities and the ‘Early Years System’ or sector – childcare, early learning centres and support services – the 10-year strategy is aimed at bolstering the healthy development of young children from before they are born until they turn five.

This is a potentially ground-breaking initiative, one that embraces several policy portfolios.

The importance of the early years is well recognised – when children begin to learn and their sense of self emerges – their ‘I can’ attitude – and when they are supported to form good routines and habits for a whole and healthy body and mind.

So it’s disappointing that the Early Years Strategy does not mention, much less headline, the role of the digital environment in young children’s lives and development. While it’s a high-level document, the omission of any reference to screen-based media makes the document operate in a cultural vacuum, appearing oblivious to the digital age and its adverse impacts that can show up early.

The omission is even more perplexing because the Strategy claims to be committed to evidence and ‘meeting Australia’s obligations under human rights treaties’.

One of the most significant recent developments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the publication of General Comment No. 25 (2021) on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment, a substantial document laying down numerous challenges for signatories on everything from privacy to culture, leisure and play.

Screen use is big news for children’s rights but from the Early Years Strategy, you wouldn’t know it. The only substantive reference to the Convention is to ‘an article about respecting the views of the child’ – an important part of the rights of the child, but by no means the only significant one.

What may explain this is that the Strategy was developed in collaboration with the Department of Social Services and Early Childhood Education but did not involve either the Attorney-General’s Department responsible for compliance with international law or the Department for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communication and the Arts which is responsible for media regulation.

Nor did the 14-member Advisory Panel include any individual with substantive expertise on children’s needs and rights as digital media users.

Brain development and screen exposure 

The early years of childhood are marked by the greatest level of brain development at any period of the life cycle. These years are when much of the brain’s ‘wiring’ is laid down.

Interactions between genes and the environment shape children’s brains, primarily steered by parents, through touch, voice, and exposure to natural, social and built environments – including information and computer technology.

There is mounting evidence of the potential harms of over-exposure to such technology. Prolonged screen time in the first years of life can affect a child’s ability to focus and acquire and use language.

Among the outcomes expected from the Early Years Strategy is support for children so they can learn, play and imagine. Studies demonstrate that unsupervised screen exposure can negatively impact cognitive and executive skills, disrupt playtime, and affect quality of sleep.

Parents and educators should be aware of the potential effects of digital experience on children’s brain development and provide appropriate guidance and support for children’s digital use.

The rhetoric in Early Years Strategy about laying a foundation for well-functioning young people and adults is not underpinned by any reference to safeguarding children from digital harms.

The document refers to the value of supporting children with a developmental delay. And yet it does not point to limiting developmental delays with a preventive strategy around screen exposure.

Children spend significant time on screens 

Children are spending more time on screens than recommended. Screen-use data for under 3-year-olds is unclear, while 4-5 year-olds are hitting more than 2 hours a day and often unsupervised. It’s an under-estimate because that data pre-dates the COVID pandemic which super-charged screen use here and around the world.

As of April 2023, a quarter of all children aged 5-15 are spending on average three hours a day (excluding homework) on screens, amounting to 20 or more hours a week.

N0. 1 Concern for parents 

A reputable 2021 poll shows parents think screen use is a top health concern. More than 90% of parents reported it as a ‘big problem’ or ‘somewhat of a problem’ in the community and related to other concerns including junk food marketing.

Mounting evidence of mental health concerns related to device use among pre-teens and young people is driving debate about what to do about access to social media platforms that are expertly designed to grab and keep users’ attention – and therefore expose children to known risks – for as long as possible.

The actions being considered and piloted are still largely reactive and will be limited without policies that are preventative, and human rights and child-centred. A foundation in the early years can help to avoid problems for older children and young people, balancing provision rights and participation rights with protection rights.

The government can make amends by producing action plans that set clear and consistent recommendations and support around the digital environment. This includes strong education for parents to share that knowledge and model good habits with the early years sector so children grow well and problems are avoided from the youngest age.

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