A few months ago I was invited to listen to a seminar by a occupational therapist who shares a passion of mine – the influence of technology on our children. Even though I was not able to attend the seminar, I read her bio and the research references she quotes in her online information (http://www.zoneinworkshops.com/). I know this is old news, but it is by no means stale. We have all read about the effects of technology overuse on our children, but when we see a synthesis of the research done in this field, it hits powerfully home. In this week’s blog I will revisit some of these research results.
The Kaiser Family Foundation Report of 2010 (http://www.kff.org/entmedia/mh012010pkg.cfm ) states that 8 – 18 year-olds are exposed to technology at the staggering average of 7.5 hours per day! In the age group under 2 years, babies watch more than 2 hours of TV per day. Toddlers are engaged in technology use between 3 and 5 hours every day. The American Academy of Pediatrics has made a recommendation 10 years ago to limit children’s total entertainment media time to 1 to 2 hours per day. They also recommended removing TV sets from children’s bedrooms, and discouraged any TV viewing at all for children younger than 2 years. If we look at the history of child development, we can pinpoint two major building blocks for successful sensory, motor and attachment development. These are rough physical play as well as fantasy play, both indoors and outdoors. It follows logically that prolonged exposure and use of technology that requires the user to sit still, will impact on the normal development of children.
One of the problems caused by the inactivity innate to technology use, is childhood obesity. According to Tremblay and Willms (http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v27/n9/abs/0802376a.html), TV watching and video games are risk factors for being overweight or obese. The Center for Disease Control states that childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years, with 1 out of every 5 children being obese. Worldwide the statistics for obese and overweight children hover between 25% and 35%. This trend is continued into adulthood, where in some countries, up to 60% of adults are either overweight or obese.
Being engaged in electronic media can also hamper a child’s language development. Although many parents assume that educational programmes are a learning tool, TV watching could negatively affect normal language development. Dr Sally Ward, a speech and language therapist in Manchester, UK, found that babies from homes with a constant background noise of TV, had the biggest language delays. In another study about the impact of TV on language development, Christakis (2009) found that “each hour of audible television was associated with significant reductions in child vocalizations, vocalization duration, and conversational turns”. (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090601182830.htm) From 500 to 1,000 fewer adult words were spoken per hour of audible television in a house – this included active television watching as well as background television noise. We can conclude that young children need a quiet environment where they can focus on the speaker to successfully acquire the nuances contained in language interaction.
Another powerful reason to switch off the technological devices is the research done by the Maryland University, showing that unhappy people watch more TV than those who feel happy (http://articles.nydailynews.com/2008-11-20/entertainment/17910035_1_watch-soup-kitchen-social-indicators-research). Or how about this study: The Archives of General Psychiatry reports that exposure to more TV and media in teenage and adolescent years is associated with depression symptoms in young adulthood. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to figure out the neuroscience behind this self-perpetuating cycle. The more you engage in technology, the more sedentary you become, the less physical activity you do, and the less you utilise your body’s natural endorphines. Factors associated with technology use like social isolation and disturbances in sleep patterns may also contribute to feelings of depression.
Professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger in Norway (2008) did a study comparing reading on a screen to reading a book. She concluded that the physical manipulations we have to do with a computer, like clicking and scrolling, disturb our mental appreciation and attentional focus. She states that the reader loses both the completeness and constituent parts of the physical appearance of the reading material. (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081219073049.htm)
Another extremely worrying phenomenen is that of media violence and the effect of this on children. Anderson et al (2003) concluded that television, games, and music with aggressive content increase the likelihood of aggressive and violent behaviour. Short-term exposure to violent content increases the incidence of aggressive behaviour, thoughts and emotions. Frequent exposure to violent media in childhood is linked to aggression later in life, including physical abuse. (http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/pspi/pspi43.pdf) In a previous blog, Elsie addressed the issue of cyberbullying – another form of aggression where electronic media are the tools of the trade.
So, what do we do with all this information? We have to be realistic – we cannot ban access to electronic media. The most important issue is to be aware and informed about the effects of technology use on our children. One answer lies in teaching responsible use. (Model, model, model!) Balanced parental electronic media use will be the strongest model of appropriate behaviour. Another important action is to create a time in which you as a parent can connect with your child on a personal, intimate level without interference of electronic media. Actively work towards creating family traditions that don’t include media use: play boardgames, play a sport together or select a hobby to pursue as a family.
And yes, I speak from personal experience. It is really difficult to maintain that balance. I have two sons (11 and 13) who constantly object to our strict rules for media use. They compare themselves to their friends who are allowed unlimited screen time. It would be so much easier to just give in to their whining. I am sure they would gladly spend several hours a day playing computer games if they had the option to do this. As parents, we’ve had to become both tenacious about their screen time and creative about engaging them in other activities. They play soccer, partake in the track and field club and they take piano lessons. We play table tennis (ping pong), cricket and golf as a family. We try to create enough time for social interaction out of school with their friends.
Finally, the other day I read a blog by Jacqueline Green (http://greatparentingpractices.com/tips-on-parenting-is-it-important-to-limit-your-childs-media-time-help-for-parents-in-making-the-right-decision-in-such-an-important-aspect-of-great-parenting/) where she states so eloquently:
“On people’s death bed, have you ever heard of anyone saying they wished they had watched more tv, or played more on their computer? It is important to limit not only your child’s media time, but your own, because although media is entertaining, it is not deeply satisfying in the same way as hobbies or spending time with family. Although consuming lots of media is easier, and more pleasant sometimes than having discipline and exercising or starting a project, the easy life in so many ways becomes the hard life… Media time is one of those critical choices where to be a great parent, we must be prepared to do the hard thing, so that our children will have an easier, better and more satisfying life.
Photo credit: Fabrice Caduc on Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/31324062@N08/5110325875/