A child’s development is largely determined by experiences. These days, those experiences increasingly involve the use of technology. Television, the internet, tablets and smartphones are all familiar to the youngest of eyes.
- In 2011, 10% of children under two had used a smartphone, tablet, or similar device.
- In 2013, that proportion was 38%.
- Five years on, the figure is likely to be far far higher. Is this increased use of technology affecting children’s development? I suspect that it is.
The human brain is a dynamic system which is constantly adapting to its external environment. When aspects of that environment change, from being shown images on a computer screen for example, the brain changes as well. And it is widely thought that the infant brain is more malleable than the adult one.
But are changes brought about by increased use of technology actually noticeable and are they persistent? Are they positive or negative? There are also various elements which could have an effect. The type of technology used, for example, the duration or frequency of exposure, and the content.
These are important issues to examine – and similar ones have been looked at by researchers before. For instance, one study famously found that listening to Mozart enhanced a child’s performance on some IQ tests, leading to a boom in sales of the great composer’s music.
However, subsequent investigations found the effect is not specific to classical music. In fact, it is observed whenever an experience leads to a similar increase in arousal and mood. And, as any music fan knows, the effect of music on arousal and mood can never be permanent.
Despite numerous interesting studies looking at technology use in older children, very few have yielded data on children under the age of two. The largest study to date found that watching TV alone had a negative impact on language comprehension in children aged from eight to 16 months. But watching TV with a parent did not. This suggests that the relationship between TV and language reflects a lack of parent-child interaction rather than television exposure per se.
Screen media has also been associated with poorer sleep quantity and quality, partly because of an association between technology use and later bedtimes – and also because of over-stimulation, hyper-arousal and the suppression of the hormone melatonin.
A decade later, Disney apparently admitted that the videos may have no educational value and a study found no evidence that one-year-old learned anything from watching Baby Einstein. It was even suggested by child psychologist Richard House that providing infants with “virtual, techno-magic worlds” confuses them and is “tantamount to child abuse”.
The AAP lumps tablets and smartphones together with TV and other devices when they dictate limits on “screen time”. But a lot of the studies cited in support of those limits are specific to television and video games (especially violent ones). That’s understandable, because television has been studied for a lot longer than smartphones and tablets, but it also glosses over serious differences between devices and what kids do with them.
It is tempting to draw conclusions from research into TV and computer use and I think the extent to which you can do that will depend on the question that is being asked.
Television has been blamed for attention disorders in kids, but the effects of those studies often disappear when researchers take other factors into account, such as socioeconomic status and the type of content.
Television is passive. Stuff happens, and you get to watch. The stuff that happens isn’t personalized to you either.
Interactive screen use can also impact brain chemistry, messing with how a person experiences pleasure.
It actually takes more stimulation to feel happy in your regular day-to-day life, because we’re using technology so much. Because of the chemical reliance that can develop, children can become literally addicted to their screens. So, you are going to find that they are going to have a strong reaction to limiting the use that they’ve had.
As a first step, it is recommended
- Parents make incremental adjustments to the amount of time children are allowed to use the devices.
- Setting a timer to help draw the line.
- When not in use, parents should physically remove screen devices and put them in a safe place where they can’t be accessed.
Televisions, computer monitors, tablets. smartphones, dumb phones, children’s toy computers, kindles, the Apple watch, it gives off electromagnetic radiation in the visual spectrum, it’s a screen.
In many ways screens have changed our lives for the better. In other ways, they’ve changed our lives and the lives of our children – and not necessarily for the better.