By Nick Young
Today, technology has engulfed our lives in every aspect. The information explosion brought about by the Internet and other modern technological tools has undeniably made positive influences on our society. However, today’s families are different than the families of a half a century ago. Parents and their children are now glued to screens for major portions of their day. Tablets, TV’s, and telephones babysit young children rather than adult human beings. This constant exposure to technology and lack of outdoor stimulation has played an important role in the rise of childhood obesity, ADHD, and emotional self-regulation.
“We have about 150,000 hours of living to expend between the ages of one and 18,” according to Professor Robert Sylvester of the University of Oregon. Around 65,000 hours are involved in solitary activities and direct informal relationships with family and friends; these activities play an integral role in the development and maintenance of important personal memories. We sleep around 50,000 hours of this time. 35,000 of our waking hours are spent with societal activities- about 12,000 hours in school, and about twice that much with various forms of mass media. (Sylwester). So, on an average developmental day for youth between the ages of 1-18, one sleeps 8 hours, spends 10 waking hours with self, family, and friends. Four hours are dedicated with mass media, and only two hours are really dedicated to school. Emotion drives attention, which drives learning, memory, and behavior. So, today’s digital media has a strong impact on primal emotional elements and attention span among youth.
Today’s families are different than the families of a half a century ago. Technology’s impact on the 21st century family is fracturing its very foundation, and causing a disintegration of core values that long ago were the fabric that held families together. Juggling school, work, and home lives, parents now rely heavily on communication, information, and transportation technology to make their lives faster, and more efficient. Entertainment technology has advanced so rapidly that families have scarcely noticed the significant impact, and changes to their family structure and lifestyles. A 2010 Kaiser Foundation study showed that elementary aged children use on average 7.5 hours of entertainment technology per day, 75 percent of these children have TV’s in their bedrooms, and 50 percent of North American homes have the TV on all day.
Children now rely on technology for the majority of their play, grossly limiting challenges to their creativity and imaginations, as well as limiting necessary challenges to their bodies to achieve optimal sensory and motor development. According to pediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan, “Today’s early youth are entering school struggling with self regulation and attention skills necessary for learning, eventually becoming significant behavior management problems for teachers in the classroom.”
We live in an ever-changing high tech world—with high tech classrooms and schools. We understand the benefits of using iPads during class, integrating tweets during presentations, and are constantly innovating our teaching methods while using smart boards. We know the many benefits of incorporating technology while teaching, such as adding diversity to lessons, increasing student interaction, and bringing new perspectives and knowledge to the class.
In Matt Richtel’s article, “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say”, published in the New York Times in November of 2012, states, “There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks,” according to two surveys of teachers. There can be a negative side resulting from an inappropriate or overuse of technology, and that negative side can have serious, long-term consequences. To make the best out of our use of technology tools, teachers and parents must also recognize their downsides and how to avoid them.
Children of the future are likely to learn differently than they do today. In fact, research has shown that there is already a great dependence on the computer, and a development of related skills. Research conducted by the Pew Internet Project, a division of the Pew Research Center that focuses on technology-related research, posted their findings on their online consortium. Other research was conducted by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, that advises parents on media use by children. Vicky Rideout, a researcher, has previously shown that media use among children and teenagers ages 8 to 18 has grown so fast that they on average spend twice as much time with screens each year as they spend in school.
While the Pew research explored how technology has affected attention span, it also looked at how the Internet has changed student research habits. By contrast, the Common Sense survey focused largely on how teachers saw the impact of entertainment media on a range of classroom skills. The surveys include some findings that appear contradictory. In the Common Sense report, for instance, some teachers said that even as they saw attention spans wane, students were improving in subjects like math, science, and reading. The article mainly focused on information obtained by two major research centers, and the research that was conducted had aligned both positive and negative effects on technology used by students.
Scholars who study the role of media in society say no long-term studies have been done that adequately depict how and if student attention span has changed because of the use of digital technology. But there is mounting indirect evidence that constant use of technology can affect behavior, particularly in developing brains, because of heavy stimulation and rapid shifts in attention. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, the term Digital Technologies is used to describe the use of digital tools to effectively find, analyze, create, communicate, and use information in a digital context that relates to the way machines communicate. This encompasses the use of web 2.0 tools, digital media tools, programming tools, and software applications.
Children’s developing sensory, motor, and attachment systems have not evolved biologically to accommodate this sedentary, yet frenzied and chaotic nature of today’s technology. The impact of rapidly advancing technology on the developing child has seen an increase in physical, psychological, and behavior disorders that the health and education systems are just beginning to detect, much less understand. Child obesity and diabetes are now national epidemics in both Canada and the U.S., casually related to technology overuse. (Rowan, C., 2013.)
According to Michael Friedlander, head of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, states,
“The human brain continues to develop into the early ages of twenty year old, and then some. The frontal lobes, regions that are critical to high-level cognitive skills such as judgment, executive control, and emotional regulation, are the last to fully develop. It is also well accepted that during this extended development period, the brain is highly adaptable to and influenced by external environmental circumstances.” (Pantoine, B., Whitman, A., Goldberg, J., 2008)
Another member of the Dana Alliance is Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Grafman states, “In general, technology can be good [for children’s cognitive development] if it is used judiciously. But if used in a non-judicious fashion, it will shape the brain in what I think will actually be a negative way.” Social cognition which encompasses such things as the ability to form impressions of others, make inferences about their intentions, gauge their emotional reactions and adjust their actions accordingly, is another complex skill that relies on the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s forward-most and last to develop region.
Friedlander calls “broadband communication,” a term borrowed from the digital world. He also states,
“So much of what we’re conveying to each other comes from the intonation of our voice, the looks, the facial expression, the body language, the pauses-all the subtle cues that go into communication. Kids who are spending all of their time interacting through this cyber world are very likely to not have the opportunity to develop sets of skills that are innate and important to the human brain in terms of what we call social cognition.”
Essentially the more that one becomes fully immersed in the cyber world the more awkward one becomes when interacting with real living people in real situations.
Referring to Cris Rowan’s work, four critical factors necessary to achieve healthy child development are movement, touch, human connection, and exposure to nature. These types of sensory inputs ensure normal development of posture, bilateral coordination, optimal arousal states, and self-regulation, necessary for achieving foundation skills for eventual school registration. Young children require 2-3 hours per day of active rough, and tumble play to achieve adequate sensory stimulation to their vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems. Tactile stimulation received through touching, hugging, and play is critical for development of planned movement patterns. Touch also activates the parasympathetic system; lowering cortisol, adrenaline, and anxiety. Nature or “green space” has not only a calming influence on children, but also is attention restorative and promotes learning. (Rowan, C., 2013.)
Further analysis of the impact of technology on the developing child indicates while certain systems are under stimulated by heavy use, the visual and auditory sensory systems are in overload. This sensory imbalance creates huge underlying problems in overall neurological development, as the brain’s anatomy, chemistry, and pathways become permanently altered and impaired. While technology is a train that will continually move forward, knowledge regarding its detrimental effects, and action taken toward balancing the use of technology with critical factors for development, will work toward sustaining the early youth of today.
One area the Dana Alliance researched was the affects of multitasking on the brain. Plugged-in kids have gained a reputation for being masters at toggling between a homework assignment, texting, online browsing, and the use of social media. A 2006 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that middle and high school students spend an average of 6.5 hours a day hooked up to computers or otherwise using electronic devices, and more than a quarter of them are routinely using several types of media at once.
While the common perception is that multitasking saves time, enabling one to complete more tasks simultaneously has costs, both in performance and time. Several independent research groups have reported evidence that, at the level of neural systems, multitasking actually entails rapid switching from one task to another. Each switch takes a toll, at least doubling the time it takes to complete a task, and decreasing both the level of performance and the ability to recall what your doing later on. Essentially, multitasking degrades the quality of learning. Grafman states, “That one of the big trade-offs between multitasking and ‘unitasking,’ as I call it, is that in multitasking, the opportunity for deeper thinking, for deliberation, or for abstract thinking is much more limited. You have to rely more on surface-level information, and that is not a good recipe for creativity or invention.” (Pantoine, B., Whitman, A., Goldberg, J., 2008)
Work published by PLoS ONE, suggests self-assessed Internet addiction, primarily through online multiplayer games, rewires structures deep within the brain. Moreover, surface-level brain matter appears to shrink in step with the duration of online addiction. In another crucial part of the study on Internet addiction, the research team zeroed in on tissue deep within the brain called white matter, which links together its various regions. The scans showed an increased white matter density in the right side of the brain in an area called the parahippocampal gyrus, an area of the brain ted to memory formation and retrieval. The abnormality in white matter may make it harder for Internet addicts to temporarily store, and retrieve information. Meanwhile, areas around this part of the brain are a subjected to the impairing of decision-making abilities. The long-term impacts of these physical brain changes are less certain. (Rowan, C., 2013.)
A mere 20 years ago, children used to play outside all day, riding bikes, playing sports, and building forts. Children of the past moved… a lot, and their sensory world was nature based and simple. Today, technology has engulfed our lives in every aspect, whether it be at school, work, or home. The information explosion brought about by the Internet and other modern technological tools has undeniably had positive influences on society. While technology is a train that will continually move forward, knowledge regarding its detrimental effects, and actions taken toward balancing the use of technology is essential to cultivating healthier lifestyles among parents and their children. Awareness regarding the implications of technology overuse will influence our actions in regards to the sustainability of healthy habits in our youth. Ultimately, we must change our current habits in order to assist the primary development of skills in the brain that pertain to social cognition, self-control, and emotional regulation.