How Does Technology Help and Hinder Our Children?by Becton Loveless
Technology -- we all use it, from baby boomers all the way down to the next generation of school children. Many of our daily tasks are automated or simplified by it, and it's used in classrooms and other learning environments across the planet. But what does technology use mean? How does it affect our brains, and more importantly, how does it affect our children and their brains, behavior, and beliefs? We’ve heard the arguments surrounding less screen time for children, and we know that spending too much time on devices and in front of screens can be damaging to our health in physical and mental ways. In this article, we’ll take a look at how the use of technology can be both helpful and detrimental to our children in different scenarios.
Before we get started, let’s examine the precise meaning of technology and what it encompasses -- in other words, what is it, and what isn’t it? When we think of technology, we think of automation, machinery, and computers, but tech is more than that -- it’s the application of human knowledge and skills to make goods or to provide services to others. Technology is the machines and tools we use to convert natural or mental resources into things we need, like energy or algorithms. It also means the specific methods we use to convert our resources. Technology is both a process and product, and includes machinery and knowledge in most cases.
Technology is also the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, primarily in industries such as computer technology. Technology is the machinery and equipment itself that is developed from this application of scientific knowledge, as well. In addition, technology is the branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences. With all these definitions, we can see why it’s difficult to pin down just one to describe the field of technology, which is vast and has begun to interweave with so many other types of industry, services, and knowledge.
There is another piece to technology, though, beyond the scientific descriptions: technology allows us to learn in ways we never dreamed possible mere decades ago. Technology can accelerate learning, doing, understanding, and creating -- it’s a tool that we rely on now just as primitive people relied on spears and other rudimentary tools centuries ago to obtain food and resources from their natural environment. We need technology, and in so many cases it helps us with daily tasks, complicated tasks, and even tasks we thought were impossible to complete (or would be impossible without technology). It is a large part of our lives whether we like it or not, and has become a significant staple of the learning environment in schools across the world -- which brings us to one of the most important and schismatic issues of our time: how are our children affected by technology? Let’s take a deep look at this question, considering different opinions, studies, and scientific findings.
How Does Technology Affect Children?
First, there is no one way to look at this issue, and there is also no one right answer. Technology can be used in so many different ways, positive and negative, that the answers have become as convoluted and complicated as human interaction. It follows, therefore, that some technology is right for children in a learning and social environment, and some technology is not. While we can agree on this simple idea, from there the opinions of parents, educators, psychologists, and pediatricians vary widely and become a cacophony of conflicting viewpoints with confusing results for parents and caregivers. Studies have been performed that confirm the detrimental effects of technology and yet we see its positive effects on the minds of our children in the joy they show us when they learn something new. Newer studies focus on both the positive and negative effects of technology on our children, both physically and mentally -- after all, it’s here to stay.
Positive & Negative Effects of Technology on Children
As with any divisive issue, the sources of our information are the key to accurate interpretation of the good and bad surrounding it. We start, therefore, with scientific studies and move to the personal tales of experiences people have had with technology and the overall public and private viewpoints of people from walks of life that interact consistently in meaningful ways with children.
Studies on Children and Technology
In 2010, Daphne Bavelier, Shawn Green, and Matthew Dye (of the Rochester University Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; the University of Minnesota Department of Psychology, Center for Cognitive Sciences; and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the Univeristy of Illinois, respectively) conducted a study on “wired” children and the positive and negative effects that technology has on them. The study found that video game playing in children resulted in “widespread enhancement of various abilities, acting...as exemplary learning tools” to increase brain plasticity and learning. Bavelier and her colleagues note that “The central question...is...not whether technology is affecting cognitive development…[but] how” (2010). The study found that the effects of technology depend upon consumption, including what type of media or technology is consumed, how much, and for how long.
Technology use has been found to have both transient and long-term changes in arousal, mood, behavior, and brain function. The Mozart Effect, for example, is the enhanced brain performance observed following any experience that increases human arousal or mood. Frances Rauscher found that listening to Mozart for 10 minutes significantly improved spatial reasoning skills. While these findings were not long-lasting, they caused a stir on the academic world. Rauscher stressed that Mozart does not enhance general intelligence, as some classical music-based children’s programming would have us believe.
So technology can temporarily change children’s brains for the better, but what about long-term? The problem with evaluation of technology is that it’s not immediately apparent which types of technology are helpful to children’s brains -- in other words, it’s hard to determine whether action video games or interactive television and computer programming positively or negatively affect them. Content and how it is presented are the keys to determining the good and the bad of technology for kids, according to many different scientific studies and child-oriented organizations such as the U.S. Department of Education and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Let’s start by looking at the mother of all controversial technology: the television. A very large part of most children’s lives today (although waning in popularity over the past few decades), Bavelier’s study noted that television can enhance learning for children, increasing school readiness, numeracy skills, vocabulary, and expressive language skills. Expressive language skills include verbal and nonverbal language such as facial expressions, gestures, intentionality, semantics, morphology, and syntax according to the Pediatric Therapy Network. Overall, television programming promotes early literacy when it uses child-directed speech, elicitation of responses (think “Dora the Explorer”), and object labeling or a story-like framework. Kids who watch TV shows that feature these items effectively acquire more and better vocabulary and language expression. Educational shows should also include social conflict resolution because “anti-social behavior has been linked to poor academic outcomes,” according to Bavelier and her colleagues.
Given the need for interactive programming, it's clear that computer learning may encourage interaction more than television can. But what about the detrimental effects of TV? The U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health found that the “influence of media on the psychosocial development of children is profound,” indicating not only positive, but also negative effects. Among its findings are that violent television can increase violent behavior in children and excessive watching can increase childhood obesity and decrease learning and academic performance, presumably by displacing more healthy activities such as playing with friends and getting exercise. The time spent watching television is key to its detrimental effects, and the recommended age for media introduction is 18 months, and the programming should be high-quality, educational programming such as Sesame Workshop or PBS shows. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that a balance be struck for older children, including and taking into account responsible media use, expectations, and boundaries. Media use should never displace “physical activity, hands-on exploration, and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning.”
The AAP recommends 1 hour per day for ages 2-5, and parent co-viewing to help children understand and apply what is viewed to their world. Children six years of age and older should have consistent limits on media and parents should ensure it does not take the place of sleep, physical activity, or essential health behaviors. Media free times need to be scheduled in today’s world, and dinner, driving, or media-free bedrooms are great examples.
Computers, Devices, and Smartphones
The detrimental effects of computers and other devices are much the same as television, and depend primarily on the amount of time spent viewing and using and on the type of content being viewed. Because devices are interaction tools, there is also the danger of releasing information or losing information to the Internet during hacking episodes or due to naivete on the part of children. Internet use, more than device use overall, should be strictly monitored to avoid early exposure of children to excessive violence, unhealthy body expectations, and derogatory or negative expressions and beliefs of adults that may be incorrect or discriminatory.
On television, and increasingly on devices as Internet advertising increases exponentially, images of perceived positive social and physical traits can be misleading to children and adults. Advertising can be a powerful leader of misconceptions and downright incorrect belief systems, and can therefore negatively affect children as they shape their own ideas about the world and reality. Exposure to violence, sexual activity, and unhealthy eating and drinking habits and smoking are not things any parent wants their child to experience. Therefore, carefully monitoring children’s use of media is paramount to making their experience positive and educational.
By the same token, advertising for healthy habits is increasing as people realize that feeding children a daily diet of ridiculous expectations and untrue claims about food and social life can affect them negatively -- public television stations and libraries have an abundance of this information to balance out negative advertising campaigns. Media awareness taught in schools and at home is an excellent way to counteract the negative effects of advertising online.
The Internet was created as a way to share information easily and rapidly, much like the television. It is to be expected that as it evolves, people will use it in both positive and negative ways. There are very positive aspects of Internet use, which any adult who uses it regularly is aware of: it is an limitless source of information that adds many new ideas and concepts daily from all over the world; it is cheap and available in most places in the world; it is an exceptional source for research and homework support; and excellent and inexpensive communication tool; it provides increased access to disabled or activity limited members of the population; and it is an amazing source of entertainment and learning.
Like anything that the general populace considers “fun,” the Internet can be addictive. Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is a problem for both children and adults in some cases, and the very availability of it can increase its negative effects. Children, with limited ability to discern truth from advertising and limit their impulses and screen time, may be more at risk for developing IAD when unmonitored by adults. Socialization may be affected when children spend too much time on the Internet, as well. Sitting with a computer or device inherently involves limited movement, and can increase the risk of obesity and health problems ranging from muscle damage and atrophy to carpal tunnel syndrome. Limiting Internet use and time spent on devices is the key to staying healthy and happy in today’s world.
A Blended Interpretation
We’ve concluded that technology, like many things in our world, can both help us and hinder us, and the same goes for our children. Just as we monitor our children’s friends, experiences, health, and learning, we must also monitor their screen time, Internet use, and physical activity. It may seem that screen time is something new that parents have to contend with, but in reality it’s just another aspect of being a good parent. We need to monitor our children’s lives and encourage positive experiences whenever possible, and technology is just another aspect of that. Due to its prevalence, there is no way to separate it out from the daily litany of dangers and learning experiences that may affect our lives.
The key is to apply good judgement, boundaries, and past experiences with technology to every interaction children have, and teach them to make the best choices possible. Modeling has been shown to influence children greatly, since they learn how to act from parents -- their guides in the world. “Over-imitation” is a term for the way children copy everything we show them, not just the things we try to emphasize, and we have little control over it. Children learn by copying what others do, which is why demonstration and participation in activities are so important to their development. Erik Missio, a writer for CBC Radio-Canada, found that some parents “park” their devices when their kids come home from school with mixed success. The point is that keeping perspective on the right way to handle family life and separate work life is an important way to keep technology use where it should be, Mission noted.
Websites like Edutopia strive to help teachers model responsible media use in the classroom, as well, including posting boundaries and sticking to them; using technology daily but in a limited way that includes learning; share responsible use tactics with students such as using an online thesaurus to find the right word or a TED video to introduce an important concept; and make technology use interactive for the students.
Parents and teachers are ultimately the gatekeepers of information, and have been since education began -- but now children have an additional source of information, a very powerful tool that can teach them things they need to know and things no one ever needs to know in the blink of an eye. To use technology responsibly, children must have positive role models, the skills to separate fact from fiction, and the knowledge and experience to use the positive information they find and disregard the negative. Technology is just a tool that can be used for positive reasons and negative ones -- our job is to teach our children the difference.