Too much tech a threat to kids
Here’s a question for parents: how much time do your kids spend using electronic devices?
If it’s a lot, you might be finding it hard to turn them away from those tiny screens. But it’s probably what you need to do.
Let’s admit it: We’re glued to our phones. We’ll pick them up reflexively whenever there’s a pause in a conversation. Some of us won’t hesitate to check status updates, tweets and game scores between bites at the dinner table.
The recent Pokemon Go craze is driving hordes of people to distraction (and occasionally onto city streets). And for parents who feel stressed out and exhausted most of the time, it’s easy to just hand our restless kids a tablet with a bunch of easily accessible educational apps while we go and relax.
If it all seems too good to be true, however, that’s because it is. Some researchers are now reporting on the consequences of our children’s digital habits — and they don’t like what they see.
According to neurotherapist and doctor of psychology Mari Swingle, we’re starting to notice changes in early learning and development as a result of our increased reliance on interactive technology.
“When we get i-tech in the cradle, there is a noticeable decrease in infant-caretaker interaction,” says Swingle, author of the new book, i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming and Social Media Are Changing Our Brains, Our Behaviour and the Evolution of Our Species (New Society Publishers, 2016).
“All human systems — brain-wiring — is through touch, visualization and voice prosody (non-phonetic elements of speech, such as intonation, tone, stress and rhythm). And what we’re noticing is that when we put the devices in the cradle and when parents and young caregivers are on their devices, there is a notable reduction in all of this that’s affecting attachment.”
The consequences of reduced attachment and impeded social interaction are wide-ranging and troubling to researchers such as Swingle, particularly as problems have begun to present themselves among toddlers.
“What we’re seeing with this group is that they’re attaching to objects instead of peers and parents,” she says. “They don’t respond to parental calls as much. When we talk about straight discipline and obedience, they’re not responding to parents as much. They tantrum without their devices. They don’t know how to self-occupy or play — and play is learning at that age.”
A lot of the problem, Swingle says, stems from the fact that when children stare at a screen, they tend to block out the physical environment around them.
It means, for instance, that they’re not learning as much language from their parents or siblings because they’re disengaged from the conversations going on around them.
They’re not getting the usual back-and-forth that they would get from, for instance, story time, when there’s typically a dialogue going on between parent and child over the subject matter.
And that, in turn, means they’re missing out on the broader contexts that normally would help them to understand what they’re reading, not to mention to expand their vocabularies or learn some of the nuances of vocal inflection and tone. Learning from an interactive app thus occurs in a way that is less organic and more compartmentalized.
But this isn’t simply a problem for toddlers and young kids. Many teenagers, for instance, will forgo in-person conversations in favour of peer connection via social media or text messaging, sometimes even when they’re sitting in the same room.
This is hardly a new or shocking revelation, but Swingle suggests it’s affecting their social development in profound ways.
“What’s happening is that teenagers are communicating through their devices, but they’re not learning adult social skills,” she says.
“And we’re finding these polarizing behaviours in terms of sexuality, where these kids are incredibly brazen on their phones and texting, Snapchat, all of that. But then they’re very, very awkward person-to-person, unless the relationship has been objectified or the interpersonal risk has been taken out.”
Certainly the evidence Swingle cites in her book doesn’t bode well for the future of human social behaviour or intellectual development. But the technology isn’t going anywhere; if anything, it’s only likely to become more inescapable in our daily lives.
If that’s a given, what should we do about it? Swingle says she wouldn’t be opposed to an outright ban on electronic devices for children under six. But drastic measures aside, the key will be to consider more closely the positives and negatives of allowing kids so much screen time.