It is a different world than the one in which most of us were raised in, in terms of technology and convenience. Technology is here to stay to make our lives easier. We don’t have to remember phone numbers, look at a map to get where we are going or worry about complaints of “are we there yet?” when we can rely on our devices to inform and entertain us. We can now answer medical questions, get answers to questions like “What does this rash mean?” and make airline reservations, pay bills or compare prices from the convenience of our homes because, “there’s an app for that”.
All of this convenience has an unfortunate downside. It is difficult to manage the awesome power that is embedded in today’s technology. Gaming system, tablets, smart phones are everywhere from our homes and desktops to our pockets and purses. Technology offers fun, interesting and educational alternatives. It is convenient and quickly turned to for entertainment or to keep the kids quiet on long road trips. Schools are using the Internet to communicate about assignments as well as directing students to use it to support learning as literature searches are now performed electronically. It can be a marvelous tool with a wealth of information. On the other hand, once the device is in a child’s hands, it presents parents with unprecedented challenges.
The amplitude of the stimulation that makes games/media exciting provides a heightened degree of sensory input into the nervous system, which can shift the threshold for engagement and excitation leaving normal life dull by comparison. “I’m bored” can become the complaint of the child who is used to this supercharged input stream. The high rate of interaction between the game and the gamer, or the viewed and the viewer with rapid shifts in input requires little reflection or working memory to get satisfaction from these activities. This may challenge the development of top-down modulation for the management of attention and working memory in the presence of distraction, a skill that is under construction in childhood. If shaped by gaming or media, how prepared is the young brain to face real world problem-solving such as those presented by demands of homework, requiring short-term memory, reflection, and manipulation of ideas to answer comprehension questions or write a research paper?
On a social level, the two dimensional world of the flat screen does not support the development of communication. It is estimated that as much as 93% of communication is non-verbal, leaving only 7% to the words themselves. Consequently there is significant loss of meaning and intent when reliant on the words alone as in texting/communication via keyboard. Furthermore, with the shield of anonymity provided by a device, there can be cover for intentionally hurtful language without the real time feedback of how the other is affected. In the case of video and media, while there is non-verbal communication (facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, gestures, timing, intensity, etc.) there is an absence of the dynamic experience of face-to-face social interaction. Skills such as social problem solving, compromise and conflict management may go underdeveloped. Consequently, the technology intended to improve the quality of our lives can instead lead to its deterioration through social disconnection, cyber-bullying, loneliness, social and work place challenges.
As parents, it is widely accepted that it is not healthy for your child’s development to allow him to eat candy all day every day at every meal. We know that he needs to have a balanced, nutritious diet with an occasional treat. The challenge technology poses is how to regulate it when it is both the broccoli and the Halloween candy. This is further complicated by the reality that a parent cannot supervise every minute the device is in a child’s hands and he knows how to navigate between programs and pages quicker than you can bat an eye. Boundaries need to be set. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends NO media for children under 2 years of age and no more than two hours a day of “high quality content” for children and teens. If a child doesn’t abide by the limits, more direct intervention needs to be considered. While there are parental controls that can be set and programs installed to monitor websites and duration of use, a motivated child can find ways around them. In some cases, more drastic measures may be necessary including, but not limited to, removing devices, cancelling Internet services and disconnecting TV satellite connections. It is important to intervene early, as the challenges can grow because the reliance on devices can become habitual. It is unfortunately not unusual to hear children say that their life is not worth living if they can’t have access to their on-line activity. The stakes are high and, while technology has made some things easier, parenting our children so that they have an appropriate relationship with devices and the world around them is not one of them. Unfortunately, there is not “an app for that”… yet!