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 are 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 melt down 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 these 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 is 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 limit duration of use.