Safeguarding Blog Curriculum Blog

Screens in the Earliest Years

We know that the early years is a time of phenomenal growth. Children are like sponges, soaking up stimuli around them and developing knowledge and new skills at an incredible rate. It is also a period that has a significant impact on the rest of an individual’s life, with the foundations being laid for lifelong habits. Therefore, as parents and professionals we must think carefully about the input children receive in the early years, and more so than ever before, consider the role that online activity plays.

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It is impossible not to notice that children are accessing devices and going online for more time, and from a younger age - especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. Recent research from Ofcom (2023) highlighted that 87% of 3–4-year-olds go online (an increase from previous years’ data), with 92% of children in this cohort watching videos on streaming sites such as YouTube. When children go online, they are most likely to be using a tablet (75%), but in this report, parents suggest that 25% of 3–4-year-olds own a mobile phone.

With children accessing online devices earlier, it should be unsurprising that they are now also being exposed to risks from a younger age. Risks such as struggles with emotional regulation, overstimulation, being overweight due to increases in sedentary activity, experiencing bullying, accessing inappropriate content and taking sexual images. With regards to the latter, a 2023 report from the Internet Watch Foundation, found that the biggest increase in concerns of children being coerced into taking sexual imagery of themselves, is within the 7–10-year-old group, where there has been a 360% increase of such concerns compared to the previous year’s data. Most of this imagery (78%) is created without an abuser physically present, meaning children are usually using a device alone in their bedroom – a place where parents would consider children to be safest. Frightening statistics. But this post isn’t about creating fear and panic. We are NOT urging you to lock away all your devices . Accessing the internet can be beneficial for children in many ways and is a consistent part of all of our adult lives. Instead, we think knowledge is power, and that both early years professionals and parents, should be proactive in understanding the risks, and putting in place measures that protect children, and promote safe, healthy and fun online activity. Adults should manage and curate children’s first online experiences, rather than leaving this to chance.

When should children start going online and using devices?

Ultimately this is for parents to decide, however we know that in the first 5 years of a child’s life the focus should be on developing their communication, language, physical skills and emotional development. As such, the World Health Organisation recommends children should “sit less and play more”. They recommend no sedentary screen time for under 2-year-olds. For children aged 2 - 4 years, a maximum of 1 hour per day sedentary screen time is recommended (but less is better). The main reason for this is that there is much more developmental benefit when children spend their time engaging in things like physical activity, social interactions and exploring literature with an adult, compared to being passive and sedentary in front of a screen. Having said this, we are also realistic and acknowledge that many parents do allow their young children access to online devices, and so we hope the guidance below will help you to support the child and their parents as best as possible.

What do I need to know if young children are going online?

Apps, games, devices, sites …. It can all feel quite overwhelming and intimidating. But there are some very basic and key principles outlined below that will help you to create a positive culture around online activity:

  1. Not all content/tech is equal. Decide what devices/apps/games/websites you want children to use and when is the right time to start accessing them in your setting/home. What are the benefits of children using these? Try and offer a varied digital diet (i.e. not all sedentary and passive consumption) including things that promote physical movement and other key areas of child development. Use of devices should not replace activities that promote healthy child development. In Early Years settings, ensure that you share your approach with colleagues via your policies and procedures so there is a consistent approach.
  2. Learn about the tech you want children to use before allowing them access. You don’t have to be an expert, but it is important to know about any age restrictions and also about any parental settings that you can put in place to protect children. Controls can be put in place on individual sites, games and apps as well as on devices themselves for things like the amount of time spent online. The following LGfL webpage may help, On this page you will find links to great information from Internet Matters and Common Sense Media. Consider what training you and your colleagues may want to access to improve your understanding on online safety.
  3. Talk to children about their online activity as you would about other areas of their lives. Find out what they enjoy. Talk to them about how it makes them feel. These initial conversations will help to create open and honest dialogue with children, so that as they get older, they will hopefully feel comfortable talking to and confiding in adults, if things go wrong.
  4. Where possible engage with children when they are using technology, to make it an active rather than passive process. Talk to them about what they are doing/watching/playing. Talk about any skills they are using. Be interested. Ask them to show you what they are doing. Extend their online interests and learning when they are not on the device.
  5. Monitor children’s activity and role model positive and safe use of technology. Recognise the learning opportunities that arise when using technology e.g. if an advert pops up, or if you have to enter a password. Talk to children about what these things are. Monitoring is essential in both the home and early years settings.
  6. Agree ground rules. How long will they spend on the device? When will devices be used in the day? Where should devices be used in the home/setting? What happens at the end of the screen time? What should they do if something makes the child feel worried or sad?
  7. Support and engage with parents. With so many children in the early years accessing online devices at home, it is important that early years professionals help parents to understand the key principles above about facilitating safe use of technology. What resources can you provide and signpost to? How can you be proactive with this? 

Further Info

If you are interested in finding out more about keeping children safe online, have a look at the following links:




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