Today, children grow up tech-savvy. They are given iPads to entertain themselves while Mom cleans the house, and they sit and watch educational movies in the classroom. At home, they watch TV and play video games with their friends. Constant screen time influences how children relate to and interact with the world around them.
In her paper “Determining the Effects of Technology on Children,” Kristine Hatch writes that although digital media use can accelerate the development of basic mental functioning, it can also cause a shift in social norms. For example, many children use media devices when they are waiting in a restaurant, spending time with family, or traveling in the car. This constant distraction causes loss of focus. When we use technology like iPads, computers, or TVs, our attention is split between the screen and our environment. This can cause stress and even behavioral changes. According to Hatch, more extreme consequences of frequent screen time are obesity, developmental challenges, and diminished sensory skills.
In an earlier paper, “Children and Computers: New Technology—Old Concerns,” researchers Ellen Wartella and Nancy Jennings suggested that one reason children are drawn to digital media is because of its interactivity and the pleasurable feeling of control that it grants its users. For children, the Internet is “the biggest classroom the world has ever seen.” However, frequent engagement with this technological world means less verbal communication and physical activity, inevitably resulting in loneliness and depression. However digitally literate children may be, time they spend in front of a screen is time they are not spending outside playing with their friends. During development, the brain changes in response to its environment. This is why, as you might have heard, children learn best through play—but not playing Temple Run on an iPhone. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a child’s brain and even DNA are vulnerable to modification from repeated behaviors. In the earliest years, it is important for parents and other caregivers to “provide supportive and nurturing experiences” because the brain is developing quickly; billions of neural connections are being made that will determine how the child learns and behaves in the future. Children do not come into the world as blank slates; instead, they have predisposed preferences and tendencies which become stronger with repeated use.
The frontal lobe, located right above our eyes, is responsible for planning and focused attention, among other things. It is also largely involved in executive functioning, which helps in goal-setting and impulse control. These skills can be developed through activities like play and those that foster social connection. A process called “serve and return”—where the child responds to the behaviors and gestures of their caregiver, and vice versa—also dictates how the brain will develop. For healthy development, this process is crucial—but in today’s world with busy parents and attention-starved children, technology is often used to fill the gap.
“There are no credible scientific data to support the claim that specialized videos or particular music recordings (e.g., “the Mozart Effect”) have a positive, measurable impact on developing brain architecture,” states the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child’s paper “The Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Combine to Shape Brain Architecture,” “Beyond recent research that has argued against such claims, evidence from decades of scientific investigation of experience-induced changes in brain development makes it highly unlikely that the potential benefits of such media would even come close to matching (much less exceeding) the more important influences of attentive, nurturing, and growth-promoting interactions with invested adults.”
Dr. Kerry-Ann Williams is a psychiatrist who works with children and adolescents in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In an interview, Dr. Williams mentions the importance of asking questions about the effects of screen technology. “I think now there are no screens until after age two. It is surprising that [pediatricians] should even have to say that, because parents are exposing children to technology so early…. There was always an issue with parents letting electronics get in the way of parent-child interaction. So it is important to ask these types of questions: Does it affect vision? Does it affect attention?”
As children get older and parents decide to introduce digital devices to them, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends high-quality programming and that parents watch it with their children in order to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to their worlds. It is also important for children to have media-free times and spaces, and for parents to communicate about speech and safety online so that their children may learn to treat others with respect both on and offline. Parents and caregivers play a huge role in directing their children’s media and technology use. Experiences should be positive or educational, and boundaries should be set on time and expectations. If you have a toddler, try building towers out of blocks with them. If you have a preschooler, try counting games or playing outside. The Center on Media and Child Health suggests that children should be engaging in activities that require them to use their imagination or their bodies. Positive development suffers when technology becomes more important to the child than healthy pleasures like social interaction and physical activity.