Successful education particularly in the digital age means supporting our children on their path to becoming a socially competent, independently thinking adult. This adult should firstly be able to judge for themselves how much of their life they want to spend in front of a screen and thus not engaged in other activities; and secondly acquire the skills for the active, creative, controlled and technically versatile use, and for the avoidance of usage risk. during the time that they decided to spend at the screen.
Why not “media competence”?
The term media competence has become a narrow concept in the public debate which mostly refers only to the technical skills for operating machines. But these skills turn out to be a risk factor with regard to Internet addiction and contact with problematic content on the Internet such as violence and pornography (Leung, Lee 2011).
In contrast, critical media competence, that is the skill to reflect critically on media content as well as our own usage behaviour, is a protective factor. Critical competence in turn correlates most strongly with short periods of screen time and a high level of education.
According to initial studies, protective factors against the addiction to computer games are basically the same as against other addictions; namely that children experience themselves as capable of acting, are supported by their parents, have good friends (not on Facebook) and like to go to school.
Early high touch versus early high tech
As quickly as we can agree on the mature handling of media as a goal, as much there is disagreement on promising paths to this goal. The first path is called “high touch first, high tech later”. High touch means direct contact, real world experience with all the senses, a direct experience of relationships. This path follows its own inherent logic: educational institutions should use less digital technology and enable children to have a direct experience of the world and interpersonal relationships – that is: high touch – to compensate for excessive media consumption in many families.
In advising parents on media education, they should be shown how they can protect their children against too much screen time and being manipulated by marketing. The technical skills to use a PC, tablet and iPhone should only be acquired at the start of secondary school.
Following a Germany-wide survey of experts (Bitzer 2014), this “early high touch – high tech later” strategy is recommended by “child specialists” and “addiction experts” (Bleckmann 2014). In contrast, “media experts” and representative of the media conglomerates advocate the opposite, the so-called “early high tech path”.
Initiatives of the latter kind are not just promoted in Germany, such as through the digital pact of federal education minister Johanna Wanka (CDU), but also regionally and across the EU such as for example in the “Opening up Education – Making the 21th century classroom a reality” initiative of the EU. They also follow their own consistent logic: the opportunities and benefits of the use of digital media for children are considerable. Educational institutions should be given more equipment, specialists in education should be trained to implement high-tech projects with children so that children acquire media competence already at an early stage. Educational institutions should therefore early on help children, particularly children from disadvantaged backgrounds, to practice the good, active and creative use of digital media since at home they were only familiar with passive and addictive use.
There was one point, however, in which the recommendations of the different groups of experts displayed a high level of agreement: the recommended maximum screen time of children and young people was about half of the average of real usage, and this was the case in all of the age groups surveyed. A clear statement, then: reduce screen time, best by half!
In contrast there were very noticeable discrepancies between the expert groups with regard to the recommended starting age. For PCs the child specialists recommended “towards the end of primary school age” and thus on average five years later than the “media experts”.
Tower of media maturity
In the first months and years in the life of a child the basis for maturity in handling media lies in the direct encounter with the world and other people. Sensory motor integration is located on the lowest storey; it refers to learning with all the senses and the linking of sensory perceptions with movement (motor skills) – hence sensory motor integration.
Second storey: A child could not exist without other people. They begin to explore the world in the presence of their very first caregiver, they go into the world with curiosity if they feel secure in the attachment, as the alternation between attachment and explorative behaviour shows. With communication skills I mean gestures, facial expressions, speech and subsequently also writing, that is learning to read and write. The consumption of screen media puts the stable base of the high tower of media maturity at risk, the base becomes small and unstable. This applies not just to the two bottom storeys but also to large parts of the following storeys in the tower.
1. = Sensory motor integration
2. = Communication skills
3. = Production skills
4. = Reception skills
5. = Critical reflection
6. = Selection skills
The state of research on the effects of screen media consumption on childhood development does indeed show a series of well-proven negative effects. For every hour that a child has spent in front of a screen before starting school, the risk increases of a delay in speech and motor skills, of becoming overweight, developing diabetes and sequelae, of subsequent addictions such as smoking, alcoholism as well as drugs, of sleep disorders (this relates both to length and quality of sleep), bad marks at school and probably also ADHD.
The current hypothesis to explain these things is the time displacement hypothesis, that is the screen as a time thief (Mößle 2012). Screen time is lost learning and living time for small children; in other words, the opposite of prevention and health promotion. Some prevention teachers have therefore voiced the criticism that the two guiding perspectives of media education and prevention in the education plan of the German state of Baden-Württemberg are not compatible.
The third storey is then production skills. Don’t think here directly of PowerPoint presentations or tweeting either. This is to begin with about the very general ability to create and get something going oneself: at first in the imagination such as in creative play, in art, for example in painting, clay modelling, later on in music, singing or learning an instrument, drama and various hobbies. At some stage in the older child these will then be joined by the productive handling of a screen such as in radio drama projects, or radio and film productions.
The fourth storey refers to reception skills, the ability to look at or listen to something in detail and to understand, process and think further what has been perceived. A mere quarter of the third and fourth storey thus corresponds to what is meant by the narrow concept of media competence. It is part of the tower, but only a small part.
The last storey of the tower refers to critical reflection skills. Germany has a strong tradition in this respect, namely in critical media theory which developed out of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, even if this was the reaction to terrible events: the horror about the use of the mass media – newspapers, radio and also film – for the propaganda machine of the Nazi regime.
It seemed urgently necessary to critically question what the effects of the media can be, the manipulative potential of the mass media, how advertising manipulates, what open and concealed interests may stand behind advancing digitalisation, the impoverishment of the real world in favour of virtual worlds. This is the peak of adult media maturity.
The tower of media maturity makes two things clear: it affirms as plausible that an early, stable foundation in real life forms the best basis for sustainable media education. Furthermore, it makes it possible not to set the different historical approaches to media education against one another but sequentially one after the other.
Early protection against the consumption of screen media can thus be understood as a progressive approach to resource-oriented media addiction prevention.
Education and research policy requirements
The expert group of “media experts” has so far claimed the sole right to rule on questions of digital education policy at the federal and state level in Germany.
Some of their argumentation displays an astonishingly high level of conformity with the PR campaigns of large, globally active media producers, thus for example with the statements from Ibrahim Mazari (2010), PR man with Turtle Entertainment. That the sole authority to rule on such issues is claimed by a single group of experts – some of whom are tainted with massive conflicts of interest and who in our experience during our survey of experts largely refused to discuss media risks – gives rise to such great concern because the “early high tech” strategy will according to the current state of research have a damaging effect in three areas:
• it is likely to lead to a widening of the digital divide instead of closing it;
• it is likely to worsen media addiction instead of preventing it (Bleckmann, Mößle 2014);
• it is likely to exacerbate the shortage of specialists in the IT sector instead of reducing it.
There are many historical examples of the introduction of new media in education but never before has the process been so badly handled educationally and academically. Before its blanket introduction, the respective new medium in earlier times first had to show its superiority in solid long-term comparative studies with control groups. Mostly such a blanket introduction did not then occur because the euphoria about school radio, school television or language laboratories respectively gave way to more sobering reflection when the research results came in (Hübner 2005).
What political demands arise from this?
First: The “early high tech” hype must be reversed because, according to the state of research, it tends to be harmful for small children in the three ways just mentioned and is of benefit for large corporations.
This demand can be particularly well justified in Europe because here the precautionary principle is anchored in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It says that the burden of proof is reversed if there may be a dramatic effect on the health of humans and the environment. The manufacturer must prove that something is not harmful instead of the individual citizen or their representative having to show a risk.
A second demand is: The training and further training of education specialists must include skills to prevent problematic and addiction-like use of screen media (“media risks”). In the event of doubts as to whether media risks have really been empirically well proven – and doubts are important and permitted in the democratic decision-making process – it has to be noted: if the long-term risks are not deemed to have been proven, then this applies twice and three times as much with regard to long-term opportunities when the same quality criteria are applied..
Third demand: We need academic studies which enable a long-term comparative evaluation with regard to the opportunities and risks of both strategies described.
These studies should on no account be undertaken by “media experts” in the above sense alone but on an interdisciplinary, or better still, transdisciplinary basis. The “Tablets in day care” or “Laptops in primary school” projects require alternative treatment control groups; in other words, “early high touch” control groups with equally generous funding for circus, drama and music projects, better staffing ratios or work with parents to prevent media addiction. But it is precisely these control groups we are about to lose. That must not happen! Many progressive educational establishments practice “early high touch”. That is to be welcomed from the perspective of technology assessors above all because a kind of natural control group is maintained here.
On the basis of these study results, a decision should then be taken in digital education policy on the question: “Use of high tech from which age?”