Toddlers, tech and talk: parental mediation of very young children's early language and digital learning with digital media at home

Sandra El Gemayel, Janet Goodall, Rosie Flewitt, Lorna Arnott, Julia Gillen, Katrina McLaughlin, Zinnia Mevawalla, Karen Winter

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


Most children today are born into homes where diverse digital, touchscreen and portable devices are present in daily life (Chaudron et al., 2017). While research into children’s digital technology use is on the rise, there remain serious gaps in our knowledge about how 0-3-year-old children’s lives intersect with digital media and how parents mediate their very young children's language and literacy learning with digital technologies at home (Kumpulainen & Gillen, 2019). This paper therefore addresses the following questions:
1. How do 0-3-year-old children’s lives intersect with digital technologies at home in socially and ethnically diverse families across the four UK nations?
2. How do parents mediate and safeguard 0-3s’ learning with diverse digital technologies at home?

Research to date indicates that many parents and caregivers are unsure how to support young children’s engagement with new media in meaningful and playful ways that benefit their learning, or how to manage young children’s digital safety and security (Smahel et al., 2020). Myths around children’s digital media use are prevalent, and guidance for parents and educators has tended to focus on the risks of children’s digital media usage while largely ignoring its benefits. As Blum-Ross & Livingstone (2016) argue, parental guidance that is ‘focused on risk mainly advocates that parents employ restrictive mediation strategies whereas opportunity-focused advice mainly emphasises active mediation’ (p.13). This raises questions about how the parents of very young children might mediate the rich opportunities that digital technologies offer for their children to observe and take part in everyday language and literacy practices whilst using digital devices (Arnott et al., 2019; Ofcom, 2022; Zhao & Flewitt, 2020).

This paper addresses a gap in the literature around parental mediation of young children’s use of digital technologies at home, by reporting on interim findings from the ongoing ESRC-funded study ‘Toddlers, Tech and Talk’ about the ways in which parents mediate early language and literacy learning with digital media. The paper also challenges deficit discourses of parenting related to poverty and ethnicity. See

Drawing on post digital theory (Jandrić and Hayes, 2020), we move beyond humanistic understandings of learning and education (Goodall, 2017) to consider how the home learning environment has become a digitally networked space, requiring different ways of interacting both between humans and between humans and technologies (Flewitt & Clark, 2020). Families’ digital networks in turn require parents to develop new ways of mediating their very young children’s digital and non-digital interactions with people and technologies both within and beyond the home.

In this talk, we focus on findings from the completed project Phases 1 and 2. The ongoing project Phase 3 involves in-depth case studies in the homes of 40 families with very young children, and findings will be reported elsewhere in due course.

Phase 1 comprised a UK-wide survey for parents and legal guardians of 0-3-year-olds, which was launched late 2022 in 13 languages (English, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Farsi, French, Gujurati, Polish, Panjabi, Romanian, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Welsh), reflecting a strategic attempt to include the voices of hard-to-reach communities across the UK. This survey, completed by 1000+ respondents, investigated what digital devices parents of very young children across the UK have in their homes, how they are used, and parents’ attitudes towards them. Phase 2 comprised a series of in-depth interviews with parents/legal guardians (n=40) and early care providers (n=20). During these semi-structured interviews, we probed more deeply into child and family device usage and ownership, parental beliefs, concerns and aspirations about 0-3s’ play and learning with digital technology, and how parents and educators mediate very young children’s digital media usage.

Reflections for this paper are grounded in parental reports from the study Phase 1 (questionnaire) and Phase 2 (Interviews). Emerging findings provide insights into the devices very young children from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds use at home, how they use them, parents' views about them and how parents mediate and safeguard their very young children’s early language and literacy learning with digital technologies at home.

This project will contribute empirical evidence and theorized understandings of the ways in which very young children’s language and literacy learning are mediated through the intra-actions between people and digital technologies in diverse home environments.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 12 Sept 2023
EventBritish Educational Research Association Conference 2023 - Birmingham, United Kingdom
Duration: 12 Sept 202314 Sept 2023


ConferenceBritish Educational Research Association Conference 2023
Abbreviated titleBERA 2023
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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