Screen time!” Photo: Peter Merholz

January 4, 2019; Washington Post

Watching toddlers giggle, run, sing, and play together is almost guaranteed to bring smiles to even the crabbiest of adult faces. That play, according to most early childhood specialists, is truly their learning, and the “work” that helps young children’s brains grown and learn. But preschool and childcare comes with costs, according to NPQ and Martin Levine. Those costs are putting it out of reach for many who cannot afford the high costs of quality preschool and states that cannot subsidize the costs to meet their own standards of care for young children. What’s a parent—or a state—that wants its preschoolers to be “prepared” for kindergarten to do?

Enter “the virtual preschool”—ta-da! It’s accessible. It’s inexpensive. It can be distributed in rural areas. Parents can manage it on their own. States can cut costs and reach thousands of preschoolers. What’s not to love?

The first state-sponsored virtual preschool was piloted in 2015 in Utah. It was called UPSTART, and it has since expanded to more than seven other states. The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit that reports on education news, described virtual preschools in a report from October 2018:

Online preschool programs have been growing in recent years, and thousands of parents have signed their children up. The programs offer everything from educational games to a full preschool curriculum complete with boxes of activities that are shipped to a student’s home and a teacher’s guide for an adult. Most online programs are offered by for-profit companies, although perhaps the fastest-growing is UPSTART, which was developed by the nonprofit Waterford Institute and is advertised as a kindergarten-readiness program. That program has been used by children in Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, rural Ohio and Philadelphia, and is used by 30 percent of Utah’s four-year-olds. In 2013, the Waterford Institute received an $11.5 million federal grant to expand the program to rural children in Utah.

The early childhood community has not been silent on the issues associated with young children and screen time. Groups are opposed to the use of screens, whether phone, TVs, computers, or other devices, as a means of teaching very young children. More than 100 early childhood organizations and educators signed a statement this past October demanding an end to public funding for virtual preschools. In part, that statement reads, “Virtual preschool may save states money, but it’s at the expense of children and families. Early learning is not a product. It is a process of social and relational interactions that are fundamental to children’s later development. Asserting that this process can take place online, without human contact, falsely implies that the needs of children and families can be met with inexpensive, screen-based alternatives.”

The medical community has also weighed in on this issue with data on the impact of screen time on the brain development and health of children. And neither looks good for the use of devices and young children. As parents worry about how their children’s mental skills will develop, they may want to pay attention to the research on brain connectivity and brain chemistry. As Alice G. Walker writes for Forbes:

One new study finds that time spent on screens is linked to not-so-great shifts in brain connectivity, while reading is linked to more beneficial changes. The researchers, from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, had families rate how much time their kids spent on screens (smartphones, tablets, computers, and TV) and how much time they spent reading actual books. The children’s brains were scanned, to assess how regions involved in language were connected, and it turned out that screen time was linked to poorer connectivity in areas that govern language and cognitive control. Reading, on the other hand, was linked to better connectivity in these regions.

Another recent study found that the brain chemistry of kids who fell into the category of smartphone or Internet addiction was different from that of non-addicted kids. In particular, changes were seen in the reward circuits of the brain, in the ratio of the neurotransmitter GABA to other neurotransmitters. (Interestingly, these changes generally reversed when the teens went through cognitive behavior therapy [CBT] for their addiction.) And other research has reported that cells in one of the reward areas of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, are activated when participants view Instagram pictures with more “likes,” which again suggests that social media use can tap into addiction pathways.

In addition, there is a health overlay associated with too much screen time. Doctors have found that children using these devices are getting less sleep than those who do not use them, or who use them less frequently. And sleep is essential for brain development in young children, according to Keith Fabisiak, assistant chief of Pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Clara Medical Center. What’s more, children who are absorbed in their screens are usually fairly sedentary. The link between childhood obesity and excess screen time seems obvious. With close to 20 percent of American youth between ages 2 and 19 classified as obese in 2015–16, alarms should be sounding.

As learning is more defined by how a child can articulate letters and numbers and succeed in testing, and less by how a child can solve a problem, relate to people, or build relationships, we may see the growth of virtual preschools. After all, they are cost-efficient and can reach children in rural areas. They resolve the sticky issue of student-to-teacher ratio that drives up the costs of care for young children. Plus, kids love to play on devices. But if we believe this, then we choose to ignore the advice of the early childhood experts who have done their research on child development and social and emotional development as well as the physicians and pediatricians who have looked at the physical and brain development of young children:

The truth is that for children to master the print system or concepts of number, they have to go through complex developmental progressions that build these concepts over time through activity and play.

Young children don’t learn optimally from screen-based instruction. Kids learn through activity. They use their bodies, minds and all of their senses to learn. They learn concepts through hands-on experiences with materials in three-dimensional space. Through their own activity and play, and their interactions with peers and teachers, children build their ideas gradually over time.

We need to rethink the virtues of efficiency and cost-effectiveness and look to what is truly in children’s best interests—especially those children who have the least. Giving them a screen may not be doing them a favor.—Carole Levine