Safeguarding and welfare

Internet safety

Get insights on how screen use impacts young children and how it can benefit them in early years settings.

By Ghislaine Bombusa, Head of Digital, Internet Matters

Ghislaine works closely with online safety experts to develop advice and guidance that helps to educate and inform parents about online safety issues.

What children in the early years are doing online

Children in the early years are now more digitally savvy than ever before. Their use of digital devices is commonplace with apps like YouTube Kids becoming a destination of choice for 72% of children aged 3 to 4 according to a recent Ofcom report.

Research also shows that children are moving away from watching TV, opting for video-on-demand content on video-sharing platforms to watch cartoons, mini movies and songs. However, unlike older children, only a small number of children aged 3 to 4 (23%) play games online.

Two children, one using a tablet, the other using a laptop

The impact of device use on children’s development in the early years

Screen use can have a number of benefits for children in the early years but also comes with some challenges that staff should be aware of. Ongoing research suggests there are both positive and negative developmental outcomes.

Benefits of screen use include:

  • opportunities to promote creativity and learning
  • language development
  • improvement of numeracy and literacy skills
  • greater understanding of their world
  • development of digital skills

Challenges of screen use include:

  • impact on children’s ability to control their emotions
  • displacement of activities that promote social interactions vital for development
  • risk of exposure to inappropriate content

Screen time for children in the early years

In the UK, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published guidance for parents and clinicians, suggesting that ‘there are no ‘safe’ amounts of screen time.’ The right amount of screen use will vary between families.

This approach emphasises the need to assess screen time limits based on the needs of the child while ensuring sleep and social activities are not negatively impacted.

Most recognise that the quality of what children consume will have the most impact.

For example, encouraging children to watch or engage with content that helps them learn about the world around them or using apps designed for kids to stay active, are just some of the ways that screen time can help children thrive on and offline.

Therefore, the content and context of screen time becomes central to children getting the most out of their online use.

Advice for early years practitioners

As devices become more commonplace in early years settings, here are some tips on how practitioners can help children use screens safely.

Things you can do to support children’s use of technology in your setting include:

  • outlining how you support children’s use of technology in your setting - it can be helpful to combine this with safeguarding policies
  • using device safety settings to ensure apps and content are age-appropriate
  • monitoring and supporting children while they use devices
  • thinking about what you post online and how this may impact your role - this could be ensuring you do not share details about children, parents or other practitioners and adhering to any social media policies which cover staff personal use of social media platforms
  • getting parental consent before creating or sharing images of children and store them safely

You should teach children about internet safety by:

  • making them aware of what safe use of technology looks like
  • choosing educational apps and platforms that help them to develop their skills
  • having conversations and sharing advice with parents to encourage safe online use in the home

Stay informed about issues that young children face online through online safety training and by keeping up to date with news and research on internet safety.

Further reading

Safeguarding children and protecting professionals in early years settings: online safety guidance for practitioners - UK Council for Internet Safety

Internet safety checklist for pre-school children - Internet Matters