Balanced, Current, and Relevant, Part I, by Tess Prendergast

Question: Why is research about digital technology, young children and libraries so hard to find?

Answer: Because it has not even been written yet.

When children’s librarians approach the topic of digital technology’s place in early childhood, I think we need ways to “converge” what we learn from the available research with our own expertise and mandates. Despite the fact that we are information professionals, this convergence, in this divided field, is not at all an easy task. I am a children’s librarian with 17 years on the job. I am also halfway through a doctorate in early literacy, but I don’t claim to have all the answers or even any of the answers! What I do claim, however, is that what I have found to be most helpful and informative to me as an early literacy researcher has come from mostly qualitative research in the field of early childhood education. A lot of qualitative research tends not to “prove” anything because that is not its aim. It provides illustrative data drawn from real people’s lives, tied to important themes and issues that concern us all. We can and should learn from this kind of research as we move towards the goal of creating our own.

You might be thinking: But we are children’s librarians! We are not early childhood educators! And we are not all early literacy scholars either! Why don’t we just go to our own research? Well, there is the problem, staring us in the face. Our profession has very little research (qualitative or quantitative) about children and literacy, and even less on the impact of technology on young children. To date, information schools have just not generated the volume of research that early childhood librarians need to draw our own informed conclusions, based on our own contexts. Thus, we are forced to borrow heavily from other spheres, such as education and even medicine. While I acknowledge a great deal of common ground, children’s librarians, teachers, and doctors have different mandates. While valuable and respectable in their own right, wholesale application of these different paradigms’ research to public library contexts is not without its own hazards. One of those hazards makes itself so apparent in the current debate about screen/digital/tech use in storytime programs. The hazard is that librarians are not sure whose research should be used to make good, rational, thoughtful, 21st-century decisions for our public library work with young children. We literally have no research of our own to draw on, and what we borrow from varying camps may not fit nicely into our paradigms.

I definitely do not think that I have this a this all wrapped up, but here is what I think early years librarians need from whatever research we can find on this topic: Balance, Currency, and Relevance.

Balance: We need balanced research that clearly acknowledges the need to provide children with a range of opportunities from which to learn, opportunities which together help support their development across all domains, not just those of early literacy learning. Balanced research will emphasize the importance of human interactions in all early learning.

Currency: Current research will build on studies from the past to a certain extent, but truly current research will take into account contemporary, present day realities of children in our communities. Older research studies that tell us it is bad to have the television on all day are not useful in this conversation; we already know that. What we need to know is how contemporary children are experiencing contemporary technology (including television programs) in their lives. Our practices and decisions should be based on actual childhood, not ideal childhood.

Relevance: The data we draw on for making the best digital tech decisions in early literacy/library services for children should be relevant, meaning well-matched and appropriate to the contexts and realities of families who are most like those in our communities. I don’t just mean the ones we see in our libraries. We need to understand the realities of all the families in our communities, especially the ones we do not see in our libraries. We really need to see and understand research that is relevant to the realities of Western childhood, in all its diversity. This is not an easy task. Believe me when I say that you can spend many years studying children and you will only scratch the surface of all there is to learn from them and about them.

Right about now you might be saying: But we are working professionals and we are busy enough for goodness sake! How are we supposed to get a handle on all of this? In other words: Where to begin? And please don’t tell me I have to get a PhD to understand all of this!

For this particular topic (digital technology and early childhood) I recommend starting with the NAEYC–the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Their joint position statement with the Fred Rogers Center says (among other things):

  • When used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.
  • Intentional use requires early childhood teachers and administrators to have information and resources regarding the nature of these tools and the implications of their use with children.
  • Limitations on the use of technology and media are important.
  • Special considerations must be given to the use of technology with infants and toddlers.
  • Attention to digital citizenship and equitable access is essential.
  • Ongoing research and professional development are needed.

Then, you may wish to compare that statement (read the whole statement, not just the summary I gave you) to this one from American Academy of Pediatrics about media and children. Again, read the whole thing, not just the snippet I have here.

Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.

By limiting screen time and offering educational media and non-electronic formats such as books, newspapers, and board games, and watching television with their children, parents can help guide their children’s media experience. Putting questionable content into context and teaching kids about advertising contributes to their media literacy.

The AAP recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers, or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

Now I want you to think about these statements while considering the expertise of the people behind them regarding their collective knowledge about early childhood literacy & learning. I am pretty sure that the authors of the NAEYC statement all hold advanced degrees in education (or related fields), with specializations in early learning. Many of them have conducted and published their own research about various aspects of early childhood learning with actual children. Now remember, I said that wholesale adoption of their conclusions is not necessarily going to be a perfect fit for public libraries. However, given the choice between the education sphere and the medical sphere regarding something like early literacy, I feel pretty confident in my leaning towards education for a better fit. On the other hand, although no doubt well trained, pediatricians do not receive any specialized training in early literacy. For this reason alone, they are just not the “experts” I would go to first (or at all, actually) for help understanding any aspect of early literacy or learning. Personal experience with the copious quantities of early literacy research which I need to read, understand, critique, and synthesize in order to get my doctorate tells me that none of it has been written by a pediatrician. This not to say they are not out there, but none of the authors on my extensive and very authoritative course reading lists in early literacy have been pediatricians (or any other type of medical doctor).

Yes, pediatricians are concerned with the health of children, and research does suggest that excessive and/or inappropriate exposure to screens is unhealthy. I could have figured that out myself, but that has more to do with various aspects of my socioeconomic, educational, and cultural characteristics than any medical training I have or don’t have. All this to say, we all know the hazards of excessive screen use, for all ages. We do not need medical degrees to be authoritative with that statement. It is, for many of us (privileged and educated as we are) what we call “common sense.” Meanwhile, this AAP statement is being used as a blunt instrument by many who question the value or appropriateness of screens in early childhood. And, because medical doctors are mythologized as being much more than just very well trained professionals in their own fields of pediatrics (which they are), their opinions on such things as the appropriateness of digital technology in early childhood is taken as the only expert opinion we will ever need. Because a doctor said so…

On the other hand, educators–and by educators I mean those folks with those advanced and multiple degrees who work for National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) as well as many fine schools of education in universities across the Western world–not only have abundant training in early literacy, but they are the creators of a copious quantity of research on this specific, and very important, topic.

So, I want to ask you: Who do you trust more to help you make decisions about the place and value of digital technology in early childhood?

My next blog post will summarize what some of the “experts” in the early literacy field have been saying about digital technology in early childhood. Their work is real research. It is authoritative enough for me because these people are experts on this topic. I think we should be listening to them. Then, as a next step, we should get the library profession committed to the notion of generating much more of our own research from which to build and continually develop our own expertise and practice.


Tess Prendergast is a children’s librarian in Vancouver, Canada. She currently studies at the University of British Columbia in pursuit of a doctorate in the Department of Language and Literacy Education. She also blogs about early literacy and children with disabilities at

About Amy Koester

I'm a youth services librarian with a penchant for exciting ideas and engaging programs. It's a sure bet that if you talk to me about STEAM, whimsy, and trying new things, we'll be best friends forever.

Posted on July 3, 2013, in Media Literacy, Research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Lisa Guernsey, the author of “Screen Time,” has delved into just this topic. I’m currently reading it and find it well written and fascinating. Ms. Guernsey has looked at what scientific research is available and interviewed numerous people. She makes their findings accessible in her book.

    • Thank you for mentioning Lisa’s book: I have practically forced all my colleagues to read her book and I recommend it at a good place to start for everyone who is interested in this conversation. I found it highly accessible and I recommend it to parents without hesitation. Cheers,

  2. Shawn Bryant

    Tess, this was excellent. I arrived here from a link in a newsfeed. I’ve already emailed this to my entire early childhood network and everyone at my work. Balance, currency and relevance as integral pieces of effective early learning environments are not just for early years librarians, but for all those involved in every aspect of early care and education of young children. Something I believe we need to continue having conversations that lead to changes about in early childhood education. Again, thanks for the great read.

  3. Great summary of a complex issue, Tess. Thanks so much for posting this …

    • My pleasure Carisa! It is wonderful to be able to contribute to this important field of work with young children. It is very gratifying to have your feedback! Thanks!

  4. Hi,

    I think pitting educators against pediatricians is a straw argument, a false dichotomy and less than helpful. Educators want children to be healthy and learn. Pediatricians want children to learn and be healthy. Screen time is a health issue. You seem to be saying that pediatricians are not adequately qualified and the AAP standards are wrong. Wow.

    You wrote, “Older research studies that tell us it is bad to have the television on all day are not useful in this conversation; we already know that.” Well, lots of homes do still have television going all day so this is still very important research. We can’t forget about that before we decide to promote more, mobile screen use on top of harmful conditions kids are living in.

    I agree, we need current research on the touch screens and apps. Until we have it, I think the caring, prudent thing to do is to avoid adding anything potentially harmful to children’s lives. Better yet, stay focused on what we know is very healthy and effective. Librarians have choices and I don’t believe introducing and promoting tablet/app use to children age 0-5 is the best choice. I look forward to your next post.

    • I have read and re-read my post – in it I can find no overt effort to pit educators against pediatricians and I am sorry you interpreted it in that way. However, you are right, I do not believe pediatricians are adequately qualified to weigh in to this particular conversation – which is not about “screen time” but about digital technology in early childhood, specifically digital tech in early childhood library contexts. I give my own rationale for my choices to be guided by educators whose work is more closely aligned with the work I believe early childhood librarians are doing in communities with families of young children.
      I asked “Who do you trust more to help you make decisions about the place and value of digital technology in early childhood?” The key word is “more”. There is ambiguity in this conversation. One aim of my post was to help practitioners wade through some of the ambiguity and arrive at choices that work best for their communities, with the full knowledge that they have considered some of the best available research on this topic. The other aim of my post was to point out that none of the best available research from all sources named thus far are perfect for our library contexts: that research still needs to be conducted from within the field of library and information studies itself.

      Tess Prendergast

  1. Pingback: My recent contributions to Little e-Lit blog! | Inclusive Early Literacy

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