Is the extent of kids’ exposure to screens and digital media cause for concern?

baby using ipad

What’s the downside of intense screen and digital media exposure on infants, children, and teens?

The upside of technology gets a lot of attention. And rightly so. Technology’s potential impact is without question, whether in health, development, economic opportunity, civic engagement, government, and connectedness.

Change happens fast, and it’s only getting faster and larger (see Moore’s Law).

But with how rapidly technology is penetrating, challenging societal norms, there’s barely time to pause and reflect. Do we ask enough questions of technology? Or is it assumed to always be beneficial?

Young children and adolescents are good examples.

We hear a lot about how technology can revolutionize learning and education, helping young people get a “head start” in an ever competitive world. Schools are issuing iPads to students. Smartphone apps are available for kids of all ages. And television, smartphones, and tablets are now parenting tools, used to keep kids occupied or relieve temper tantrums.

Are there unintended consequences though? What does intense and prolonged exposure to screens, digital technology use, and social media do to a developing brain?

First, there is some compelling research showing how addictive these things can be. Try going a full day without carrying your smartphone. For kids, sleep and school performance can suffer. Emotional intelligence and ability to read social cues can be lacking. Sleep can worsen. And mental or behavioral disorders can develop. (For example, Google “Facebook and depression.” You’ll see some interesting research.)

But when technology is kept in its place, improvements are often seen in these same areas. Take social cue recognition. A study from last year by researchers from UCLA looked at what impact reduced exposure to technology would have on sixth graders. They found that “those who went five days without exposure to technology were significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who had regular access to phones, televisions and computers.”

Okay, this sounds promising. But, how much of an uphill battle is this?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long discouraged the use of media among children under 2 years old, and limiting screen exposure to no more than 2 hours per day. Those guidelines, however, are being “modernized” to better reflect the extent of technology use today. So, instead of continuing a hard-line stance on screen time, experts are suggesting more of a moderation approach by setting appropriate limits and boundaries.

It will be interesting to see how such an approach plays out. Self-control is a hard thing, especially when it comes to how cognitively rewarding technology and digital media use can be.

The most concerning aspect of this all is how prevalent technology use is becoming at younger ages. A recently published study in the journal Pediatrics sheds some light on this, with a particular focus on mobile media devices, like smartphones and tablets. The results are pretty shocking.

  • Of the 350 children ages 6 months to 4 years old that were surveyed, 97% had used a mobile device. The same percentage lived in households with televisions, 83% with tablets, and 77% with smartphones.
  • Nearly half of children under the age of 1 used a mobile device on a daily basis. This percentage significantly increased with age.
  • 30% of 2-year olds didn’t need any help navigating a mobile device.
  • At age 4, 3 out of 4 children had their own mobile device.

screen time

One thing is for sure: technology isn’t going away. It’s a reality of our current society. And in many ways, for the better. But, there are drawbacks. Like I wrote in this previous post, there is a fine line between harnessing the power of technology, and giving it uncontrolled power over us.

 

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