Digital Spirituality with Young Children

A friend posts a snapshot of her three year old daughter on social media. Sonia* has her head bent over her mom’s smartphone, playing a game. The photo is captioned: “Bad parenting moment, but she has so much fun, how can I say no?” Comments on the post suggest that other parents share her ambivalence.

Smartphones and tablets have become staple toys for young children. Common Sense Media reports that preschoolers spend approximately two hours a day using digital media. This average has trended upward during times of pandemic quarantine and remote schooling. It’s great that children have fun online, but is all this screen time really okay?

Experts suggest that how children spend time with digital media is actually more important than how much time they play online. Well-designed educational games and activities bolster children’s learning. And two-player apps provide time for relationship-building as well as fun.

Digital play can also be a space for nurturing children’s spirituality. Mindfulness apps like Stop, Breathe & Think Kids, help children explore peacefulness through spiritual adventures featuring animated creatures. The Wuf Shanti Yoga Fun Machine app introduces preschoolers to yoga and meditation with a loveable dog guide. Even Sesame Street has a meditation app for children who can’t get enough of Big Bird and the gang.

Educators also suggest that caregivers set aside some time to engage digital media with children. Watching a video online together gives parents a chance to wonder aloud about the moral and ethical actions of characters in the show. Questions like “I wonder what Bunny will do to help Squirrel?” or “I wonder how Bingo felt when Bluey wouldn’t share?” encourage children to notice spiritual aspects of the story. Parents can note times that characters use spiritual tools, such as mindfulness, to manage their emotions or build positive relationships.

Playing online together can also be a way to model appropriate interactions, such as turn-taking, respecting others’ feelings, and cooperation. Young children can learn to recognize that winning and losing often generate different emotions and how to handle their feelings. They can develop patience while waiting for a caregiver to take their turn. And thinking aloud about the consequences of different actions (e.g. “If I help Sam collect his blocks, then he might help me build a fort”) helps children see the benefits of cooperation.

Another benefit of shared online time are the conversations generated by talking about those experiences. Educators suggest that adults initiate such exchanges by asking the child something about the video or activity and then waiting for a response. After the child comments, invite them to ask you a question about the experience, and then respond. Don’t rush the conversation; give children plenty of time to think about both their answers and their questions. This approach teaches conversational turn-taking and strengthens the caregiver-child relationship.

As parents, we don’t need to feel bad about allowing young children screen time. Like most parenting decisions, the goal is moderation and enough quality engagement that their digital play encourages learning as well as fun.

*not her real name

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