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Technology and child development: how much is too much?

Kids have it easy these when it comes to technology, but is it too much?

Kids child development

Kids have it easy these when it comes to technology, but is it too much?

There is a lot of teeth-gnashing in some circles regarding how much technology we should expose our children to. For a long time, the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) advised that children under the age of 2 should not receive any screen time, while children over the age of 2 should be exposed to a maximum of two hours per day.

But, as an article in the Wall Street Journal details, they’re coming back from – not least because, as they admit, the speed at which technology changes is faster than it can be researched. This means that they are constantly playing catch up. Those most recent guidelines, for example, were set before the arrival of the Ipad, a device that has dramatically changed the technological landscape for parents and children alike.

The effects of technology?

Now, whether device is actually that good for young children is still up in the air. Some studies say that they might be better than books. Others say that they might not be that good for young children after all. The truth is, we simply do not know yet. The Ipad is only five years old, meaning that babies that were raised with them are only just going to school. We can’t yet know the long-term effects on their development for years to come.

Will letting a child navigate a virtual landscape before they can navigate a physical one give them an edge or give them brain damage? Well, we can argue about it, but the truth is we’ll have the answer soon enough, as 38% of parents let their children use such devices.   

The changing landscape

The reason the AAP Is changing its position on whether such devices are good for children is not because the research is in, but because today it’s pretty much impossible to avoid them! The AAP recognizes that if it gives guidelines that can’t possibly be enforced, all its doing is making people feel guilty as they ignore them.

kids technology

Technology is here and it’s advancing rapidly. It doesn’t matter how we feel about running a massive natural experiment on our children. It’s being run and there really isn’t much we can do about that aspect of it now. Fortunately, exposure is not the only facet of technology that matters.  

The other dimension

The other dimension is how they use it.

Take a parable from the drug debate (no, I’m not comparing technology to drugs, just bear with me here). As Dr. Nutt details in his book Drugs without the Hot Air it isn’t just what drug you consume that matters, it’s how you consume it. Cooking up cocaine and shooting it straight into a vein will greatly increase its effect and how addictive it is in comparison to, say, swallowing some. In this way cocaine can be made far more harmful than heroin, for example.  

Similarly, how your children use devices will influence if they are good for them or bad. For example, getting them to passively watch cartoons ins going to be far worse for them then chatting with grandma over skype, learning their numbers with mom there to engage with, or asking questions and having Siri tirelessly provide answers.

Technology is a tool

It is not Satan incarnate. It is not a manifestation of evil. It’s a tool and as such, how you use it matters hugely. And this is really where the battle for technology needs to be waged. If a study says something is good or bad for children, we need to ask, “Yes, but how was the technology used?” Did they put a bunch of children in front a mind-numbing video, or did they have them engage with something fascinating and interesting that taught them about physics, numbers, or the world around them?

kids technology

If it’s the former, then of course the technology is going to be bad for them. After all, a book can be great for a child provided it is read. It won’t be half as good for them, however, if you decide to roll up the pages into little balls and force-feed it to them.

And it is here that we need to focus our energy. The AAP is belatedly coming on board with that realization. As Dr. Christakis told the Wall Street Journal, “The real value of reading to a child isn’t anything magical about the book…The book is providing a platform for a parent and child to interact. The real question is, does the device promote that kind of back and forth or not? It certainly could. It’s all about how it’s used and how it’s structured.”

So it’s not just how long but how we use it that matters.

Too much technology

Too much technology is when that technology replaces real world, human interaction. Too much technology is when we use the screens to shut up our children for hours on end so that we can polish off a bottle of wine, continue our fling with our next-door neighbor, immerse ourselves into a video game, or to find top sites to write our university essays for us.

Too much technology is where it is no longer a tool, but rather a filter through which we force our children to see the world. As long as we can keep it from doing that, as long as we still go to the park, still tell our children bed time stories, and still sit down for meals with them and answer whatever questions they might have about split peas, technology is not too much.

Like so many things in life, it’s once again about finding the right balance. If we can do that, then chances are this natural experiment we’re running will work out fine. So let’s not declare a war on technology. Instead, let’s focus on understanding the role that technology can play in enhancing the lives of our children. Doesn’t that sound like a far healthier approach to you?

Kerry is a young and ambitious writer from Savannah, GA. She is fond of various forms of art and thinks that everything we can imagine is real.

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