Parenting in the Digital Age

Become the Media Mentor Your Child Needs

It has never been an easy job to be a parent of a young child.  But in our fast-paced and easily distracted digital age the use of handheld devices has become ubiquitous. Smartphone and tablets are often found in your hands, and we worry about how often screens can be found in the littles hands of young children. Technology has provided adults and children with powerful tools for communication, connection and collaboration.

Young children need a media mentor who understands that the child comes before the technology and that young children need to gain knowledge and skills to use these powerful tools for exploration, discovery, curiosity, creativity, self-expression, documenting and demonstrating their learning. Parents and caregivers need to be “first responders” to help young children safely navigate the digital age.

Parent acting as media mentor using technology together

Parenting in the digital age – Here are ten tips for becoming the media mentor your child needs:

1.     Remember that relationships matter most –

Using technology with your child begins with low tech, high-touch opportunities for interactions, shared experiences, discoveries, and joint-engagement with media – Encourage your child to use tech as a tool for connecting with you, with siblings and with friends.

2.     Integrate technology use into social and emotional learning —

Technology should be used in ways that support positive social interactions, mindfulness, creativity, and a sense of initiative – Use technology that invited interactions with others and cooperative play.

3.     Use technology as a tool –

Technology is one more important tool for exploring, learning and creating that you can put in your child’s little hands – Make sure technology is not more or less important than other tools children use to learn in the early years like blocks and art materials, and plan for unplugged play time too..

4.     Trust your instincts –

Focus less on how many minutes your child engages with screen media and more on the quality of the content, the context for using media (who, what, where, when and how) and how engaged your child is in the experience – Shift your focus from “how much” your child is watching to “what your child is watching and doing when using technology.”

5.     Empower children to use technology as a tool for 21st century learning –

Select technology that encourages inquiry, exploration, discovery, documentation and demonstrating what they know – Use your smartphone or tablet as a tool for digital storytelling and shared adventures.

6.     Provide beneficial technology experiences –

Offer media experiences that are engaging and interactive, include positive interactions with others, give the child control, emphasize interactions, language use and relationships, and invite co-viewing and joint engagement with media – Reimagine screen time as beneficial for your child to use technology while still remaining cautious and paying attention to headlines about how bad technology is for young children’s health and development.

7.     Make media use a language-rich experience –

Narrate your own use of technology and when children are using screen media talk about what they’re doing, ask questions, make comments and offer suggestions about what they can do after the screen is turned off – Help your child connect screen-based activities to real world experiences.

8.     Help children progress from just consuming media to creating it –

Simple tools like a digital camera are powerful media creation tools when paired with the curiosity and creativity of a child – Think about how that digital camera that is in your hands or in your pocket all the time, can be a tool for checking your email and replying to messages, and can also turn into a tool for shared creative experiences.

9.     Pay attention to your own technology use in front of children –

Children learn media habits and how and when to use technology by observing the important adults in their life so choose to be a positive technology role model Reflect on where and when and how often you are on your phone or tablet and strive to decrease the amount of time using technology distracts you from being attentive and engaged with your child.

10.   Be a media mentor—

Young children need trusted adults who are active and intentional media mentors and role models to guide them safely in the digital age – Model healthy technology habits, set clear expectations for everyone in your home and be sure to follow them yourself, use technology together and plan for “no tech” times and places. 

That’s a lot to take in and take on, I know.

None of us can do all those things or play all those roles all the time. So, reflect on what you are already doing well to promote healthy media use in your home and for your child, and then set some priorities for next steps that balance benefits with potential harms. Avoid either/or thinking. You can encourage beneficial technology use and promote healthy activities without screens and devices.

Perhaps the best place to begin is to define what “living well with media” means for your family and in your home. And as Fred Rogers reminds us in the quote below, when young children are involved it’s not about the technology, it’s always about the relationships.

…Let’s not get so fascinated by what the technology can do that we forget what it can’t do…It’s through relationships that we grow best and learn best.

– Cited by Hedda Sharapan in the Fred Rogers Company Professional Development Newsletter, May 2012

Chip Donahue at his desk working on helping parents and educators become media mentors

Chip Donohue, PhD, is a consultant at Donohue & Associates with expertise in early childhood education and appropriate uses of technology in the early years. He is the Founding Director of the Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at Erikson Institute in Chicago, where he served as Dean of Distance Learning and Continuing Education between 2009-2018 and lead the team that designed the EriksonOnline platform for online teaching and learning. He is also a Senior Fellow and Member of the Advisory Board of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, where he and Roberta Schomburg co-chaired the working group that revised the 2012 NAEYC & Fred Rogers Center Joint Position Statement on Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. In 2019, he edited Exploring Key Issues in Early Childhood and Technology: Evolving Perspectives and Innovative Approaches published by Routledge. Chip is the editor of Family Engagement in the Digital Age: Early Childhood Educators as Media Mentors (2017) andTechnology and Digital Media in the Early Years: Tools for Teaching and Learning (2015), co-published by Routledge/NAEYC. He is also co-editor with Tamara Kaldor and Susan Friedman of an upcoming NAEYC publication, The Essentials: Developmentally Appropriate Technology Practice in the Classroom (2020). In 2019, he also contributed a new chapter, “A lens on observation and technology: (Te tiro I te hangarau), to the 3rd edition of Take Another Look (Tirohia Ano) published in New Zealand (Aotearoa).

In 2012 Chip received the Bammy Award and Educators Voice Award as Innovator of the Year from the Academy of Education Arts & Sciences. In 2014, he was invited to be an international contributor to eLg Reference Group for the relaunching of the New Zealand eLearning Guidelines that provide quality assurance prompts for practice for New Zealand and international distance learning professionals. In 2015, he was honored as a children’s media Emerging Pioneer by the KAPi (Kids at Play International) Awards. In 2019, New Zealand Tertiary College inducted him into the Fellowship of Honour, recognizing 17 years of significant contributions to the College in its commitment to the education, care and nurturing of teachers of young children.


Donohue, C. (Ed.). (2020). Exploring Key Issues in Early Childhood and Technology: Evolving Perspectives and Innovative Approaches (2020). New York: Routledge

Donohue, C. (2019, October 31). Fred Rogers: A Role Model for Today’s Media Mentors [Fred Rogers Center Blog] Retrieved from https://www.fredrogerscenter.org/2019/10/fred-rogers-a-role-model-for-todays-media-mentors/

Donohue, C. (2017, September). 10 Tips for Using Technology and Media with Young Children. Imagine Magazine, pp. 10-11.