With media’s expansion to newer formats, including cellphones and tablets, increased portability and access has increased the use of technology – not just for business professionals, but for children. Although TV time is still the main medium for children, clocking in at over four hours per day on average, according to a recent study from the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost a third of that time is spent not in front of the television, but on a computer, tablet or cellphone.
What is also noteworthy is that the cellphone and tablet may not be borrowed from a parent, considering that cellphone ownership among 12- to 17-year-olds has spiked in the past decade, skyrocketing to 45% of teens with their own cell phones in 2004 to an estimated 75%. In addition to watching television programming, preteens and teenagers text and access social media most often.
The question is not if children are increasingly exposed to technology – that’s apparent – but what that technology exposure means for childhood development. Some schools are dolling out smartphones for classroom activities, while others tout an entirely technology-free environment. Although there have been passionate voices both for and against technology in childhood development, it’s important to note that the effect of technology on childhood development may be more nuanced than simply a “good” or a “bad” thing. Instead, by better understanding the overall impact, we can collectively enhance the positive and work to reduce the negative.
The Effects of Technology on Child Development
Harms Attention Spans
Perhaps the concern raised most often when it comes to children and technology is the impact on attention span. The research supports this concern. Jim Taylor, Ph.D., wrote in Psychology Today that heightened technology exposure might actually be changing the way children’s brains are wired. Why? Because unlike an adult’s brain, a child’s brain is still developing, and as a result, malleable. When children are exposed to technology at high rates, their brain may adopt an internet approach to thinking – quickly scanning and processing multiple sources of information. Developing brains are particularly vulnerable to this, and where previous generations may have spent much more time reading, imagining or participating in activities that require focus attention, brains in children exposed to high volumes of technology may adapt to frequent visual stimulation, rapid change and little need for imagination.
Reduces Self-Soothing and Self-Regulation
Anyone who has raised a toddler would acknowledge the beauty of distraction in calming a toddler in a tantrum. But parents today have a tempting distraction always available: technology. And although in the immediate handing over a cellphone or tablet may calm a raging preschooler, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that the distraction of mobile devices may negatively affect children’s opportunity to learn how to self-soothe and regulate in those moments.
Multiple studies, including one by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found a correlation between simulated violence, often found in popular video games, and heightened aggression. Exposure to violence was found to make children and teens more likely to argue with peers or teachers, and less empathetic and impacted by actual violence.
Stagnates Physical Activity
Time spent with technology means time spent sitting. Even with portable devices, the activity itself requires users to be mostly still. Given the vast amount of time children are reportedly spending with technology now, this also means that active indoor or outdoor playtime has now largely been replaced by this sedentary activity. In extreme cases, children or teenagers may even forgo other vital activities, likely eating or sleeping, when engaged with a video game or other media.
Hurts School Performance
Limited attention spans can also impact how children perform in the classroom. One experienced English teacher told the New York Times that students “lack the attention span to read assignments on their own,” due to cellphones and social media. “You can’t become a good writer by watching YouTube, texting and e-mailing a bunch of abbreviations,” said Marcia Blondel.
The article also stated that technology habituates brains to constantly switching between tasks, which can lead to reduced attention spans. Michael Rich, executive director of the Center of Media and Child Health in Boston, says that children’s brains get are rewarded for jumping to the next task rather than staying on task, which made lead to “a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.” Anecdotally, some teens admit they prefer the immediate gratification provided by a quick video over slogging through an assigned novel.
Other research suggests the presence of a computer, even if intended for educational purposes, may simply serve as a distraction. In fact, Jacob L. Vigdor, an economics professor at Duke University and researcher, found that when left to themselves, children most often used home computers for entertainment instead of learning. Adult supervision is critical.
Limits Interpersonal Interactions
Leaning on a mobile device to distract children can reduce their interpersonal interactions. Whether the need at hand is reconciling with a friend or sibling, entertaining themselves on a long trip, or settling down at night, if children are constantly armed with technology, they’re never to navigate an interaction with a friend, parent or sibling that may be critical to solving the problem long-term. For older children and teens, technology may serve as a diversion from troubling issues: not fitting in at school, parents arguing at home, etc. But instead of learning to navigate these issues children and teens may find that technology can give the illusion of shelter – without arming them with the interpersonal skills needed to navigate uncomfortable situations in adult life.
Affects Emotional Development
Even in the hands of only parents and caregivers, technology may have an impact on childhood development. Observation is the primary way children learn, as they listen to learn language, observe conversations, read facial expressions and watch how others navigate emotional situations. Rampant screen time seeps away intentionally, connected time with children that is critical to emotional development. For older children and teens, a heavy reliance on technology to communicate hinders their people skills, and may even develop a sense of detachment from others’ feelings, according to Dr. Gary Small, head of UCLA’s memory and aging research center.
For young children, the impact may be felt as screen time replaces time previously devoted to play, peer interaction and exploration, which are thought to foster empathy, problem-solving skills, curiosity, intelligence, and listening skills, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist affiliated with Harvard. Researchers from Boston University also posit that mobile phone use may prevent children from developing empathy, social and problem-solving skills.
In particular, video games have been proven to help develop peripheral visual skills, according to Science Daily. More broadly, general visual motor skills (tracking objects or visually searching for something) may improve with technology use.
When applied appropriately (as opposed to driving and texting, for example) a well-honed ability to multi-task that is brought on with technology use equips children with a necessary skill for modern adult life, according to PsychCentral.
Internet users flex their decision-making and problem-solving brain functions more frequently, and are more likely to handle rapid cyber searches well. And, technology may present the next wave of vocational training for students who may not thrive in traditional academic subjects. For example, the New York Times tells the story of Woodside High’s audio class, filled with at-risk students who are engaged, participating and learning. Not only is the technology-driven class inspiring students to show up, it’s providing occupational learning, and presents an opportunity to trigger interest in other subjects. Technology can also support education in more traditional ways, with engaging games to boost vocabularies or through electronic books.
As with nearly everything in life, technology is not a problem when used in moderation. However, the numbers suggest most haven’t yet struck a consistent healthy balance, as reported averages are well above what the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends for electronic media. Considering the AAP recommends no exposure before age 2, and a limited 1-2 hours per day with entertainment media, it’s safe to say most children are exceeding the suggested limits. We need to pursue a technology balance for our children, to capitalize on the benefits and alleviate the negative effects of technology in childhood development.