With most people plugged in all the time, I often wonder what effect technology is having on our kids. Some say technology is another helpful learning tool that is making our kids smarter and some say it is having no significant effect at all. Still, others propose that technology use is encouraging social isolation, increasing attentional problems, encouraging unhealthy habits, and ultimately changing our culture and the way humans interact. While there isn’t a causal relationship between technology use and human development, I do think some of the correlations are strong enough to encourage you to limit your children’s screen time.
Is television really that harmful to kids? Depending on the show and duration of watching, yes. Researchers have found that exposure to programs with fast edits and scene cuts that flash unrealistically across the screen is associated with the development of attentional problems in kids. As the brain becomes overwhelmed with changing stimuli, it stops attending to any one thing and starts zoning out. Too much exposure to these frenetic programs gives the brain more practice passively accepting information without deeply processing it. However, not all programs are bad. Kids who watch slow-paced television programs like Sesame Street are not as likely to develop attentional problems as kids who watch shows like The Power Puff Girls or Johnny Neutron. Educational shows are slow-paced with fewer stimuli on the screen which gives children the opportunity to practice attending to information. Children can then practice making connections between new and past knowledge, manipulating information in working memory, and problem-solving. Conclusively, a good rule of thumb is to limit television watching to an hour to two hours a day and keep an eye out for a glossy-eyed transfixed gaze on your child’s face. This is a sure sign that his or her brain has stopped focusing and it is definitely time to shut off the tube so that he can start thinking, creating, and making sense out of things again (all actions that grow rather than pacify the brain).
When you do shut off the tube, don’t be surprised if you have a meltdown on your hands. Technology has an addictive quality because it consistently activates the release of neurotransmitters that are associated with pleasure and reward. There have been cases of addictions to technology in children as young as four-years-old. Recently in Britain, a four-year-old girl was put into intensive rehabilitation therapy for an iPad addiction! I’m sure you know how rewarding it is to sign onto Facebook and see that red notification at the top of the screen, or even more directly how rewarding playing games on your computer can be as you accumulate more “accomplishments.” I am guilty of obsessive compulsively checking my Facebook, email, and blog throughout the day. The common answer to this problems is, “All things in moderation.” While I agree, moderation may be difficult for children to achieve as they do not possess the skills for self-discipline and will often take the easy route if not directed by an adult. According to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children spend about 5 hours watching television and movies, 3 hours on the internet, 1 1/2 hours texting on the phone, and a 1/2 hour talking on the phone each day. That’s almost 75 hours of technology use each week, and I am sure these results are mediated by parental controls and interventions. Imagine how much technology children use when left to their own defenses! In a recent Huffington Post article, Dr. Larry Rosen summed it up well, “… we see what happens if you don’t limit this active participation. The child continues to be reinforced in the highly engaging e-world, and more mundane worlds, such as playing with toys or watching TV, pale in comparison.” How are you ever going to get your child to read a black and white boring old book when they could use a flashy, rewarding iPad instead? Children on average spend 38 minutes or less each day reading. Do you see a priority problem here?
With such frequent technology use, it is important to understand if technology use encourages or discourages healthy habits. It’s reported that among heavy technology users, half get C’s or lower in school. Light technology users fair much better, only a quarter of them receiving low marks. There are many factors that could mediate the relationship between technology use and poor grades. One could be decreased hours of sleep. Researchers from the Department of Family and Community Health at the University of Maryland found that children who had three or more technological devices in their rooms got at least 45 minutes less sleep than the average child the same age. Another could be the attention problems that are correlated with frequent technology use. Going further, multitasking, while considered a brilliant skill to have on the job, is proving to be a hindrance to children. It is not uncommon to see a school-aged child using a laptop, cell phone, and television while trying to also complete a homework assignment. If we look closer at the laptop, we might see several tabs opened to various social networks and entertainment sites, and the phone itself is a mini-computer these days. Thus, while multitasking, children are neglecting to give their studies full attention. This leads to a lack of active studying, a failure to transfer information from short term to long term memory, which leads ultimately to poorer grades in school. Furthermore, it is next to impossible for a child to engage in some of the higher-order information processing skills such as making inferences and making connections between ideas when multitasking. We want our children to be deep thinkers, creators, and innovators, not passive information receptors who later regurgitate information without really giving it good thought. Therefore, we should limit access to multiple devices as well as the limit the duration of use.
Age comes into play when discussing the harmful effects of technology. For children younger than two-years-old, frequent exposure to technology can be dangerously detrimental as it limits the opportunities for interaction with the physical world. Children two-years-old and younger are in the sensorimotor stage. During this stage, it is crucial that they manipulate objects in the world with their bodies so that they can learn cause-effect relationships and object permanence. Object permanence is the understanding that when an object disappears from sight, it still exists. This reasoning requires the ability to hold visual representations of objects in the mind, a precursor to understanding visual subjects such as math later in life. To develop these skills, children need several opportunities every day to mold, create, and build using materials that do not have a predetermined structure or purpose. What a technological device provides a program with a predetermined purpose that can be manipulated in limited ways with consequences that often don’t fit the rules of the physical world. If the child is not being given a drawing app or the like, they are likely given programs that are in essence a lot like workbooks with structured activities. Researchers have found that such activities hinder the cognitive development of children this age. While researchers advise parents to limit their baby’s screen time to 2 hours or less each day, I would say it’s better to wait to introduce technology to your children until after they have at least turned 3-years-old and are demonstrating healthy cognitive development. Even then, technology use should be limited enormously to provide toddlers with time to engage in imaginative play.
Technology is changing the way children learn to communicate and use communication to learn. Many parents are using devices to quiet their children in the car, at the dinner table, or where ever social activities may occur. The risk here is that the child is not witnessing and thinking about the social interactions playing out before him. Children learn social skills by modeling their parent’s social interactions. Furthermore, listening to others communicate and talking to others is how children learn to talk to themselves and be alone. The benefits of solitude for children come from replaying and acting out conversations they had or witnessed during the day, and this is how they ultimately make sense of their world. The bottom line is, the more we expose our children to technological devices, the worse their social skills and behavior will be. A Millennium Cohort Study that followed 19,000 children found that “those who watched more than three hours of television, videos or DVDs a day had a higher chance of conduct problems, emotional symptoms and relationship problems by the time they were 7 than children who did not.” If you are going to give your child screen privileges, at least set aside a time for just that, and don’t use technology to pacify or preoccupy your children during social events.
There’s no question that technology use can lead to poor outcomes, but technology itself is not to blame. Parents need to remember their very important role as a mediator between their children and the harmful effects of technology. Parents should limit exposure to devices, discourage device multitasking, make sure devices are not used during social events, and monitor the content that their child is engaging in (ie. Sesame Street vs. Johnny Neutron). Technology can be a very good learning tool, but children also need time to interact with objects in the real world, engage in imaginative play, socialize face-to-face with peers and adults, and children of all ages need solitude and time to let their mind wander. We need to put more emphasis on the “Ah-ha!” moment that happens when our minds are free of distractions. For this reason alone, technology use should be limited for all of us.