DIG­I­TAL DAN­GERS

Too much tech a threat to kids

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - DAVID KATES

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.

CHRISTO­PHER FURLONG/GETTY IM­AGES

Kids need to put down their screens and connect with oth­ers in per­son, re­searcher Mari Swingle says.

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