Screen Time, Technology, and Early Childhood in Nablus

Recently, the American early childhood education community has been abuzz with discussions about how to most effectively use technology to enhance early education.  At a recent conference entitled Investing in the Future through Early Childhood Education, experts explored how technology is changing the nature of early learning.  While some educators are discussing how to use computer software to enhance learning in kindergarten classrooms, others are talking about the effect that a child’s interaction with technology has on him throughout the day.  For example, the National Association for the Education of Young Children is currently developing guidelines for assessing the quality of digital media for children, as detailed in a recent podcast from the New America Foundation.

At TYO, our discussion about technology and early childhood education focuses on how to address the challenges that technology usage presents for the children that TYO serves.  Specifically, the emotional and behavioral problems that our children possess from living here are exacerbated by their time spent watching television and using computers in unmonitored and unstructured settings.

Many parents of children at TYO have told us how television and computers have negatively impacted their children.  During many conversations with Suhad, TYO’s Psychosocial Program Manager, they have explained that their children are “attaching” to the television and cannot be moved away from the screen.  Others tell us that their children have been exposed to inappropriate material on the internet.  When their children come to TYO, they have poor social skills, have difficulty communicating with others, and have a hard time working together.  We work at TYO to provide an alternative to watching television, while also working to build the social and communication skills that these children miss out on when they sit in front of the television or computer screen.

Screen time for Nabulsi Children

The first type of screen time that negatively affects our children is the time that they spend in front of the television.  Recently, the Associated Academy of Pediatrics announced that children under 2 years old should not have any screen time.  Experts have also recommended that preschoolers only have 1-2 hours of supervised screen time a day.  From conversations with parents of children who participate in TYO programs, Suhad estimates that almost every family living in a refugee camp has a television and that these children may spend  3-4 hours a day watching television.  Given that homes in the refugee camps consist of 1-2 rooms, it is virtually impossible to keep a child under 2 years old out of earshot of the television.  If one member of the family is watching the television, the entire family can hear it.  Also, each family only has one television, so younger siblings are usually forced to watch their older siblings’ programs.

In addition to spending too much time in front of the television, most of these children watch it without parental supervision.  Very few locally designed children’s programs are available in Palestine, though many internationally broadcasted ones are available here.  One notable standout is PENmedia, a local nonprofit media organization that has created a Palestinian version of Sesame Street called Shara’a SimSim.  However, although some age-appropriate programming exists, there are not any resources to guide parents in determining which programming is appropriate for their children or to instruct them on parental controls to censor certain channels.

Moreover, parents often leave their children unattended in front of the television so that they can accomplish housework or errands.  Therefore, not only are parents unaware of what their children are viewing, but they also fail to ask their children about what they are learning from those shows.  Television viewing can be beneficial to children over age 2 if structured and monitored correctly.  After a child watches a show, Suhad recommends that parents sit with their child to discuss the themes, characters, or emotions that their child has recognized from that episode.  This way, the television is used as a tool to help the child better understand himself and to strengthen the parent-child relationship.

The other major form of screen time that children experience occurs at the computer.  Although computers are not found within refugee camp homes, children can access them in public places.  The largest problem presented by computers in Palestine is that they have not been incorporated into education in the same way that they have been in America.  Children and adults do not associate computers with education and learning; instead, they associate them with internet games.  There are very few educational computer games available to Palestinian children.  Of those that exist, most of them are in English.  TYO has developed its own curriculum to teach basic computer skills to its 6-8 year olds in a fun and engaging way without computer software.

TYO believes that unstructured and unmonitored television and computer usage in Palestine is a growing problem that needs to be addressed.  Awareness of this problem is the first step to solving it.  In the coming years, we hope to see a greater number of experts and industries arise around the intersection of technology and early childhood development in Palestine.  Please let us know if you have suggestions for spreading awareness about this issue both locally and internationally.