Technology has become an imperative part of modern society. It affects the way we communicate – whether it is in work or social settings, technology helps us to reach out to more people and expand our network of relationships. Although our generation has generally been able to channel technology into a productive space, many people have questioned whether technology is having the same positive effect on the rising generation. Today, children’s use of technology has become more common and apparent in the average daily childhood, with the easy access and affordability of televisions, tablets, and other handheld devices. National surveys have reported that of children from the ages of 0-8, 40% will have access to tablet devices, 63% to smartphones, and 75% to some sort of mobile electronic device (Nathansen & Beyens, 203). Although technology has the positive benefits of educational potential, technology also has the potential to prohibit children from “engaging in exploratory play, connecting with caregivers, and interacting with peers” (Przybylski, 2017). Przybylski suggests this plays a critical role in increasing the promotion of a sedentary lifestyle and aggressive behavior in children, along with a slew of additionally developmental problems. Throughout this essay we will discuss the shocking impacts of technology on a child’s development socially, emotionally, and cognitively.
As I have worked at a preschool and daycare over the past year, I have seen evidence of the claim made by child and school psychologist, Carol Napier: “It is widely recognized that there is a need for social interaction to provide the stimulation necessary for optimal brain development” (‘How Use of Screen Media Affects the Emotional Development of Infants’, 2014). When children are able to spend time playing with one another, they are learning skills that help them to be cooperative, compassionate, friendly, and happier. It isn’t just an attitude, but it is a disposition they develop as they continue to practice those skills through interaction.
After seeing the benefits that interpersonal relationships can have for a child’s social well-being, it is not surprising that the American Academy of Pediatrics has made recommendations to limit the screen time of children (Przybylski, 2017). I have noticed a profound difference in the dynamic of the children when the morning is spent watching a cartoon together instead of playing outside due to rain or snow. They are often more irritable, disengaged, and sedentary when television is used to pacify them. This isn’t to say that technology is the main source of behavioral issues (another source of behavioral issues is being five years old – it just comes with the territory), but I do believe that children are being robbed of experiences needed to create emotional and social connections with peers when technology is used to help calm them down.
Technology also sets limitations on the relationships that children are able to maintain with their caregivers and parents, although this is more on the shoulders of the parents than it is on the shoulders of the children. Technology is often used as a digital babysitter, preventing children from seeking out communication with their parents and decreasing responsiveness in parents when a child tries to reach out. However, this is not true for all parents who let their children indulge in media. In a study done among Chinese parents and their children, it was discovered that the amount of time a child spends in front of screens is affected by their parent’s attitude towards screen time, their socio-economic status, their parenting style, and screen content. “To summarize, educated parents of high socio-economic status, served as primary caregivers, interacted with their children regularly, placed consistent limits on screen time, and provided age-appropriate screen content to children saw benefits from their children’s screen time” (Hu, 2018). Relationships between parents and children are harmed with the introduction of technology when it is used as a source of primary entertainment without limitations on content or time of consumption.
Along with replacing developmentally enriching activities, screen media also poses as a distraction for children, who lack the ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli (Napier, 2014). As children are learning how to experience the world, they take in everything around them – they take in faces, bright colors, noises, and anything else that might help them to create a world view. Media poses as an incredible distraction to young children by putting in irrelevant background noise and flashing, bright screens that capture the attention of young children. The effects of this could be detrimental: it could distract the child from trying to understand what is going on around them, and to avoid sensory overload, the child focuses its attention on media instead of on what is happening in real life. To quote Napier again, “Mass media exposure can result in the absence of social stimulation needed for brain development” (‘How Use of Screen Media Affects the Emotional Development of Infants’, 2014). Technology eliminates any competition for attention and begs children in crucial years of social interaction and connection to focus on irrelevant stimuli.
In addition to being an imperative time for the development of social skills, early childhood is an imperative time for cognitive development, and sleep is a critical investment of time for that development to take place. Although technology offers mental stimulus for young children, children’s sleep patterns can be disrupted by screen time used in close proximity to bedtime, which may infringe on a child’s overall well-being.
In a study conducted by Amy Nathanson and Ine Beyens, the relationship between the use of mobile electronic devices (MED) and sleep deprivation was analyzed. They also suggest that the use of MED has created a vicious cycle between MED and sleep deprivation in effort to pacify irritable children. Nathanson and Beyens acknowledge the fact that “children who are sleep-deprived perform relatively worse on cognitive and academic tests, exhibit less adaptive social behaviors, and experience worse health outcomes” (Nathanson and Beyens, 215). By using technology to calm children around bedtime or keep them entertained when they are restless during the day, children are not only rewarded for poor behavior, but their quality sleep is further disturbed and their development is impeded. Once again, technology poses a competition for attention, and keeps a child from getting the sleep they need, even if they may be tired.
Even with the information that has been discussed – are the effects of technology on child development really as detrimental as some people seem to claim? Pediatrician Max Davie suggests that the dangers that screen time imposes on children is exaggerated; when screen time is monitored according to a child’s individual needs, it can be healthy for children to indulge in technology, given that consumption limitations are put in place (Try a Light Touch, 24). Although it is wise to set limits that avoid over-consumption, this doesn’t fully address the issue at hand: unhealthy habits and addictions still form in families that regulate screen usage, despite their best efforts. Children don’t always listen to their parents.
Children lack the competence to understand that something they enjoy can be harmful to their health, which may lead to poor habits and addictive behavior in technological regards. Setting limits on exposure will not fix that problem. As studies from the past have shown, “children and adults are susceptible to attentional inertia in which time spent looking at television is related to an increased probability to continue to look at the television” (Nathansen and Beyens, 2018). Although the study referenced in particular addresses television, it can be applied to screen time consumption across the board. The problem is not that screen time isn’t being monitored, because it is. The problem lies in the fact that children don’t have the cognitive abilities to care if it is monitored in the first place.
Even so, addressing the problem does not propose a solution. The well-being of children is being jeopardized because of a lack of self-regulation that leads to addiction. British author and public speaker Johann Hari once spoke on addiction and emphasized the most important element in overcoming any sort of addiction is not finding a way to abstain from your drug of choice, but rather reaching out for social support. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection” (‘Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong’, 2015). We know that technology has already been let out of Pandora’s box, so suggesting to limit screen time consumption will do little to effectively resolve the issue. Keeping Hari’s assertion in mind, the problem may be much more effectively solved if we think about altering the way we interact with technology.
To expand this point further, there has been research done that suggests that the “social and economic environment surrounding digital screens provide an important context to study when considering the possible consequences of the activity” (Przybylski, 2017). By using technology as a way to engage with the people around us, children will be able to form and strengthen relationships with parents, caregivers, and peers just like they would have the opportunity to in any other sort of recreational activity. They are able to view technology in a more positive light by using it as a way to connect, rather than disengage.
It is easy to believe that most viewing habits of children tend to lean towards programs that are non-educational or not age-appropriate (Christakis, 2013). I cannot tell you the number of times I have walked over to the computer at work to put a show on for the children, and they have asked me if I would go to YouTube to find videos of kids playing with toys. Kids want to watch videos of other kids playing with toys. Although technology created the problem to begin with, Christakis suggests that it could also be a part of the solution. Studies done to modify media content among preschool aged children have shown that content is just as important, if not more important, than monitoring screen time. When children are shown content that is age appropriate, there is a high possibility that the programming will promote prosocial behavior (Christakis, 2013). By monitoring screen use in this way, parents will have less chances to watch programs of their own. Although technology is an incredible distraction for children, the odds are: they learned it from someone. Wasting time on technology is a problem for adults: and children will follow the example they have been shown. By monitoring content to be age appropriate for children, parents will have less time to unwind, but ultimately, this will aid connection between parents, children, and families together.
Children hold the crucial need to develop relationships, form world views and understandings, and develop cognitively without the distractions and irrelevant stimuli that technology introduces in many homes. If parents monitor technology use not only by time spent on devices but also by content, children will have greater chances of developing emotionally and cognitively.