Young people today have grown up immersed in technology… it is worth asking what is being lost along the way’
How Technology Affects Children
Our kids are firmly plugged into the Matrix: Martin Oliver reveals why we should be concerned.
We are living in a world increasingly dominated by technology.
: We once looked outwards to nature for much of our meaning and culture, but this has largely been replaced with content-free hyper-communication and media saturation. We are plugged into the matrix.
Our insatiable appetite for gadgets has become a social norm. Entertainment, stimulation and instant gratification rule this screen-fixated world, where fear of missing out (often shortened to FoMo) is a key motivation.
Technology addiction and pollution
Despite arriving on the scene only a few years ago, smart phones are now widely considered indispensable, topping the addictive stakes because of their portability, interactive qualities, and habit-forming game apps such as Candy Crush Saga. Tablets and pads are not far behind.
A separate issue is the major environmental impact associated with high-tech gadgets, including the use of environmentally damaging rare earth elements, and powerful greenhouse gases such as per fluorocarbons and nitrogen trifluoride.
Tech addicts are looking for regular dopamine hits in the brain’s pleasure and reward centres. Chinese researchers have found that Internet addiction produces neurological changes mirroring alcohol or cocaine dependency.
Young people and devices
Young people today have grown up immersed in technology. Alongside the advantages this has given them, it is worth asking what is being lost along the way, and whether children are missing out on childhoods.
Part of the issue is peer pressure. Not owning a smart phone can lead to bullying and social ostracism. During the crucial teenage years, there is a strong desire to belong, and to avoid being left out of the electronic loop. Forget television, which was the cause of moral panic in the 1960s; young people are ignoring it in droves because it lacks the interactive features they crave.
Children are becoming hooked from a young age and the trend is showing no sign of slowing down. Teens and younger children are spending up to 75 per cent of their lives looking at a screen. In Japan, about 60 per cent of high school students were found to show strong signs of having a technology addiction. Hooked on neuro-chemicals, addicts become distressed and agitated when separated from their gadgets, and in young children this manifests as tantrums.
Exposure to nature stimulates child learning and development in ways other environments cannot match, and provides a long list of other benefits
Pro versus con
Not everybody is concerned about the incursion of technology into the lives of young children. Discarding a holistic and well-rounded attitude to child development, a narrower focus on tech-oriented learning encourages an early start in the electronic world.
Typically, a collective belief is formed that the future will inevitably be digital, computerised, and highly competitive. Presenting this as a foregone conclusion contributes to the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many parents are worried that to de-emphasise technology in the child’s upbringing is to set him or her up for failure, and are inclined to wean children onto screens at an inappropriately early age as a means of getting a head start.
For children aged four upwards, toys that teach them coding skills are entering the market. The UK government guidelines involve introducing children to computers between the ages of 22 to 36 months, against the urging of some British psychologists, such as Dr Aric Sigman.
In Australia, schools are getting children on the tech treadmill, with some requiring parents to buy an iPad at primary age.
A 2015 OECD report found that Australia has roughly double the average computer use in schools, at 58 minutes a day, and was the only country with more than one school computer per child. Worryingly, the report went on to correlate above-average classroom computer time with ‘significantly poorer’ student performance, and named Australia as one of three countries that had experienced ‘significant declines’ in reading performance. Despite these findings, the Victorian Government still maintains an ‘iPads for Education’ web page.
Parents who are tech-addicted are distracted from giving full attention to their children, which translates into less bonding and the risk of a touch deficit. In one freakish tragic example, two parents in South Korea left their three-month-old child to starve while they raised a ‘virtual’ child online.
Paediatric societies around the world are concerned about the risks that technological gadgets pose to child language development up to the age of five. A broad consensus agrees on setting the following limits:
- 0-2 years old – no usage
- 3-5 years old – up to one hour per day
- 6-18 years old – up to two hours per day
By the age of three some toddlers are searching the Net via Google Voice speech recognition
But this advice is frequently being ignored. The website Geeks With Juniors promotes a list of the best apps for one-year-olds. By the age of two, most toddlers have accessed tablets or mobiles, and by three some are searching the Net via Google Voice speech recognition. In Canada, one in three children are entering school developmentally delayed.
Neuropsychiatrist Dr Manfred Spitzer has coined the term ‘digital dementia’, indicating a loss of cognitive abilities resulting from over-reliance on technological aids, coupled with an over-development of the left brain at the expense of the right, which risks dementia in later life. Excessive technology stunts social and emotional development, and has been correlated with a failure to recognise facial expressions. Young adults weaned on devices risk being less functional, with fewer skills than their predecessors.
Nature deficit disorder
Until a few decades ago, childhood commonly used be an outdoor existence, which included interactions with neighbourhood children, bonding, and plenty of exercise. Over the years, time spent in outdoor play has shrunk while screen time has continued to increase.
In 2015, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, a publication aimed at seven-year-olds, removed numerous words for plants and animals, to be replaced with technological terms such as ‘broadband’, ‘cut and paste’, and ‘analogue’. The editors were trying to be values-neutral, reflecting a weakening connection between young children and nature, but were also hastening the disconnection. Where children are insulated from the wonder of the natural world, they are less likely to value it as adults.
Exposure to nature stimulates child learning and development in ways other environments cannot match, and provides a long list of other benefits. Conversely, being removed from nature stunts development. Some educators have renamed ADHD as ‘nature deficit disorder’ and have observed that being in nature typically reverses the symptoms of ADHD.
Hooked on gaming
Probably the most worrying youth technology addiction is video gaming, with boys most frequently affected. According to US figures from 2009, eight per cent of children aged between eight and eighteen had a gaming addiction. Particularly in countries such as China, Taiwan and South Korea, there have been tragic cases of addicted young people dying after days of non-stop gaming. Often a vicious cycle is set up, where a lack of social skills pushes boys further into games, which in turn results in further neglect of the social sphere.
Game developers openly discuss online how to design ‘compulsion loops’ in their games that prompt obsessive behaviour via a system of rewards. The most effective of these operate on multiple levels, with a mix of short- to long-term goals, and the prospect of a big prestigious payoff.
The violent quality of many games influences behaviour negatively in the short-term. A review by the American Psychological Association found ‘increases in aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behaviour, empathy and sensitivity to aggression”. In some cases, players carry elements of the game into the real world, referred to as Game Transfer Phenomena.
The Internet of Things and compromised privacy
Technophiles hold a vision of the world in which every object is capable of communicating using Wi-Fi radiofrequency radiation. This Internet of Things (IoT) would embed technology more deeply in our lives, whether we like it or not, taking tech addiction to a whole new level.
It sounds like a recipe for dystopian chaos, but the IoT vision is starting to be incorporated into ‘smart’ toys such as the Fisher Price interactive smart bear, in which a risk of hacking was identified earlier this year.
Similar, but creepier, is a Wi-Fi Barbie that records conversations with a child, which are then transmitted to the software company ToyTalk for ‘analysis’. In November 2015, an expert warned that the toy could be hacked and used for audio surveillance by strangers. Extracting valuable data from these devices for commercial purposes may be too attractive for corporations to resist, unless the practice is explicitly prohibited.
In the US, many parents are worried about their children’s welfare, and leaving a child under 18 unsupervised is considered neglect in some jurisdictions. When the media is not reporting horrific crimes, it also promotes ‘smart’ GPS watches worn by children that enable parents to monitor their child’s location.
Among today’s youth, anxiety and depression, the top tech-related mental health issues, are being linked to lack of unstructured play
A can of tech worms
Screen addiction among young people is causing a plethora of other issues that are almost too numerous to keep track of. This ‘can of tech worms’ includes:
Finding self-validation through maximising Facebook friends or Twitter followers. This behaviour can become obsessive.
- Narcissism and self-absorption, exemplified in the selfie craze.
- Media body size stereotypes leading young women to become anorexic in pursuit of a slim figure.
- Cyber-bullying on social media, multiplying the effects of traditional bullying.
- Constant distraction resulting in lack of focus and shortened attention spans.
- Sleep deprivation, detracting from academic outcomes.
- Gaming activities interfering with regular mealtimes and affecting eating habits.
- Light from screens shortly before going to bed suppressing melatonin levels and causing insomnia.
- Exposure to pornography. A survey of 10 to 17 year-olds found that over the past year 42 per cent had viewed online porn, and most had not sought it out. Where children (or adults) are active users, there is a physiological need to obtain increasingly intense forms of pornography in order to get the dopamine ‘hit’.
- Sharing of naked selfies via teen ‘sexting’, with a risk they may get circulated around the school and further afield.
- Missing out on real-world opportunities such as hobbies, acquiring skills, travel, social connections and meeting a partner.
- Diversion of attention from activism, and crunch issues such as climate change that will be affecting today’s young people in the years to come.
- The risk of road accidents caused by driving while using a phone, or using a phone while crossing the road.
- Anonymous messaging apps such as Kik, which can encourage ‘cyberstalking’.
Among today’s youth, incidence of anxiety and depression, the top tech-related mental health issues, are rising. The American Academy of Pediatrics links both to lack of unstructured play.
In gamers, stress and anxiety are the results of a fight-or-flight response linked to build-ups of the neurotransmitters adrenaline and cortisol. Technology addiction has strong links to ADHD, which is often addressed via a psychotropic medication such as Ritalin. A Canadian group, Moving to Learn, argues that the problem is being pinned on individuals when it should be seen as systemic.
Domination of children’s lives by technology has eroded downtime, and ended the luxury of a introspective space of solitude in which children reflect on their issues and get to know themselves.
Media influence causes children to grow up too fast, putting them in a space where it is no longer possible to be artless and unworldly, and instead pressuring them to be ‘smart’ in the tech-addicted sense of the word. A suppression of ‘intrinsic’ personal development values inevitably skews priorities towards an unhealthier ‘extrinsic’ materialism.
Physical health risks include obesity, with one in four Australian children being either overweight or obese. Too much time looking at screens causes short sightedness, unless it is balanced out by time spent in outdoor environments. Excessive screen time is linked to elevated blood pressure, with possible long-term effects on the cardiovascular system.
Alarmingly, in 2011, the New England Journal of Medicine wrote that members of the present young generation could be the first not to outlive their parents.
Radiofrequency radiation has been classified by the World Health Organisation as possibly carcinogenic, and children are at greater risk from mobile phones placed against the ear – because their brains are more absorbent. Concerns range from Wi-Fi routers in schools to wireless devices such as tablets and phones, and the spread of ‘smart’ toys.
Finding a balance
When children have boundaries, they feel more secure and less anxious. Some suggestions include:
Limiting screen time from an early age, based on paediatric recommendations.
- Setting up parental lock controls to filter children’s Internet access.
- Knowing passwords, setting curfews, a ban on phones in the bedroom, and switching off the Wi-Fi at night.
- Connecting up devices with a wired connection to avoid wireless radiation.
- Parents modelling healthy behaviour by being sparing in their technology usage.
- Encouraging children to find balance in their lives by spending time outdoors as a means of becoming more well-rounded and developing life skills. Cultivating a deeper set of values where stimulation and distraction take a subsidiary place.
- Unplugging and going cold turkey as a family, an experience vividly described in Susan Mau hart’s book, The Winter of Our Disconnect. Typically such a radical move is followed by disruption and dramas in the short term, but after an extended period families who go down this path usually feel their lives have greatly improved.
The high-tech future being presented to us as inevitable is severely impacting on our children before they are old enough to grasp what is happening to them. This trend is set to get worse unless we see a revolution in values where living offline and re-engaging with the real world becomes desirable once again.
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).
Network for Internet Investigation and Research Australia – www.niira.org.au
Moving to Learn – www.movingtolearn.ca
Hooked on Games – www.hooked-on-games.com