What is technology really doing to our children?

Guest Post by Elise Waghorn

The amount of screen time children receive is alarming. Ernest et al. (2014) report that on average, 83% of children under the age of 6 years old in the United States today use some form of screen time. It is was also found that on average, before a child has even entered kindergarten, they will have watched 4,000 hours of television (Ernest et al., 2014). Technological devices have woven their way into the daily lives of many families. Ernest et al,. (2014) believe that of all the potential issues that surround children’s education in today’s society, few have had as much impact as the exposure of screen time. Some of these impacts include changes in family dynamics, behaviour, cognitive development, and health. In considering this, it is important for families to understand the impacts that surround the use of technology on children.

One issue surrounding technology has to do with family interactions. When we consider a typical family living room arrangement, it is often set up for television viewing more than for the ease of interaction or conversations (Jordan, 2004). Jordan (2004) continues that not only does media shape the spatial organisation of our homes, but also the chronological patterns of family living. Media devices are widely used amongst families to dictate time and family activities such as mealtimes, bedtime, chore time, and homework. As such, it could be considered that technology is having a profound impact on family relationships, which could lead to detrimental long-term impacts on domestic relations.

Another issue in relation to screen time and children can be seen with aggression. Ernest et al. (2014) highlight that exposure to acts of violence can occur up to 25 times per hour in programs that are aimed at children. Ernest et al. (2014) continue that children who are exposed to excess screen time often display addictive behaviours, become more accepting of aggressive attitudes, and are becoming more desensitised to violence resulting in less empathy. An alarming comparison by Vandewater et al. (2005), determined that the correlation between media and aggressive behaviour is only slightly less than the relation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. This shows the magnitude of how excess usage of media with violent content is having a negative impact on children.

Another area of concern in relation to children and technology is that of cognitive development. Children growing up today have a significantly different experience than those of previous generations with a radical shift on how they spend their time with greater access to technologies (Jordan, 2004). Over the years more research has been carried out on the excessive use of technology and the impact this is having on children’s learning and development. Media devices have been explored for their role in stunting cognitive development, primarily imagination. This is thought to be due to the number of time children sit in front of media devices which significantly reduces the number of time children spend in creative play (Jordan, 2004). Ernest et al. (2014) go on to report that children’s neural growth occurs at an increased rate of 700 new synapses per second during early childhood, which is more rapid than any other period of life. This raises concern about excessive exposure to technology during this time which could have overall effects on the future development and well-being of infants and toddlers (Ernest et al., 2014).  Therefore there is a growing concern that children under the age of two that are exposed to excess media devices may have long-term unanticipated negative effects on their brain development (Ernest et al., 2014).

Public health experts have further expressed their concern on excess media usage with regards to childhood obesity (Hollingworth et al., 2011). Weight gain has increased dramatically over the years, especially in infancy and early childhood which correlates to the increased amount of screen time children are viewing (Lifshitz, 2008). With the constant advertisement of fast food and soft drinks on media devices along with the decreased amount of physical activity, children are at a higher risk of obesity (Lifshitz, 2008). Another area of health that is thought to be severely affected by the excessive use of technology is children’s sleep patterns. There is a growing number of children that now have electronic devices in their room, including computers and tablets (Gerber, 2014). The high level of visual and cognitive stimulation from media use puts undue stress on the brain and body, which is having a negative impact on children’s sleep (Gerber, 2014). Gerber (2014) goes on to outline how untreated sleep disturbances in children is having terrible consequences, including accidents, irritability, mood swings, conflict among friends and family, health problems and underachievement in school work.

It has become clear that technological devices are having a profound impact on family dynamics, behaviour, cognitive development, and health when it comes to children. In today’s society exposing children to technology in unavoidable, therefore it is a matter of finding an acceptable balance so that media can be used as a beneficial tool instead of being a detriment to children’s learning. With more and more children around the world are having greater access to technology it is vital that families and communities continue to play an active role in their children’s learning and development.Elise Waghorn - May 2016