Technology has drastically shifted from the days of VHS and flip phones, which dominated my childhood. Children are now cuddling up with iPads and tablets in lieu of a stuffed animal at bedtime. Before they even know how to read, they are able to find the Netflix app and select a show to watch as if it’s their sixth sense.
“I would say technology’s presence has increased 100 percent since Jack was young. Far more elementary age kids have cell phones and tablets than when Jack started school,” said Molly Hardgrove, mother of Jack ’20, Mary Kate ’24, and Anna Hardgrove ’32. “Social media use wasn’t an issue when my oldest was in Lower School (LS), but now a lot of older LS students have social media accounts.” If not used in moderation, technology can affect a child’s physical and mental health in a number of alarming ways.
Instead of exploring the outdoors, children currently spend an average of more than six hours behind a screen per day, compared to two-and-a-half hours per day in 1995, according to BBC News. Exposure to sunlight has been proven to have a variety of positive effects on a child’s development. By engaging in outdoor activities, children soak up sunlight, boosting their Vitamin D levels as well as producing melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleep cycles. After days spent outside swimming or playing soccer, it’s not just the physical activity that makes them feel tired; the sun also helps produce melatonin as they sweat. Interaction with nature has also been known to calm children’s minds as well as promote learning and attention skills, as mentioned in the Huffington Post.
A study from WebMD shows that 74 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 10 are not getting a sufficient amount of exercise on a daily basis. According to parents interviewed, the reasons for this deficit include a variety of different factors. However, an impressive 42 percent of parents attribute their children’s lack of physical activity to technology. When engaging in active play, kids are able to achieve adequate sensory stimulation, which is crucial for developing coordination skills and movement patterns, according to the Huffington Post. Without participating in activities like running, playing sports, swimming, or even simply walking, kids are limiting their development patterns.
While spending time outside has been proven to improve our sleep cycles, time spent behind a screen is known to do the opposite. Recent research shows that the damaging blue light given off from devices can cause headaches and eye strains, as well as impair the sleep cycle. The blue light suppresses the production of melatonin, keeping the brain alert and preventing natural sleep patterns. For instance, if a child watches TV before falling asleep five nights in a row, their natural body clock can be set back one and a half hours.
“I have seen my children misbehave and listen poorly when using technology and possibly have disrupted sleep patterns related to technology,” said Dr. James Baker, father of Gwyneth ’19, Audrey ’21, Maxwell (11), Lincoln (9), and Hudson Baker (6).
The long term effects of technology on young children are hard to determine since this much exposure to technology at such young ages is a relatively new phenomenon. We are able to see the effects it has on teenagers, however, who likely didn’t depend on as much technology when they were young children as they do now. One side effect is that teenagers are less adept at initiating conversations with people, especially when the subject matter is serious, as noted by Melissa Ortega, Child Psychologist at New York’s Child Mind Institute, Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia M. Greenfield, psychologists at California State University, Los Angeles, and UCLA.
As a 17 year old, I can without a doubt confirm that what these psychologists are saying is entirely true. We, as teenagers, hide behind our screens. We hide from facing conflict directly. We hide from the possibility of rejection. We hide from having to look into the eyes of the person we have hurt because it’s easier to reduce them to words on a screen. If all we’re doing to deal with our problems is exchanging texts, there’s a sense of desensitization. Sure, words can hurt, but it’s far easier to bear words than having to look at the person who you have hurt or who has hurt you. When you’re only sending messages, no one knows you’re crying. No one knows how much you hurt because you can present yourself however you want to be “seen.” You control others’ perceptions of you.
While this may be seen as a tool to protect yourself from humiliation, it’s also detrimental to human relationships. The purpose of relationships is human interaction, and, when we have difficult conversations through technology, we allow ourselves to become detached when we should be vulnerable. We should have the courage to engage in conversations face-to-face without using technology as an escape route.
Being able to interact with strangers, or even people you know, is essential for being successful in adulthood. The overuse of digital technology stands in the way of developing this skill. It has already been proven that this affects teenagers; imagine how it could affect young children who have been exposed to technology even earlier than today’s teenagers.
In addition to negatively impacting children’s physical health and social skills, technology can harm children’s mental health, as well.
“The advent of television alters attention by offering children visual stimuli, fragmented attention, and little need for imagination,” psychologist Jim Taylor said. “Then the Internet was invented and children were thrust into a vastly different environment in which, because distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary, and memory is inhibited.”
Beyond hindering their realm of imagination and their ability to focus, technology can expose children to things they are not ready to see. If young children are exposed to violent television programs or video games, they can exhibit a high state of adrenaline and stress because they are unable to distinguish whether what they are watching is real or not, according to the Huffington Post.
Despite the harmful effects that digital technology can have on children, it can also bring about positive methods for interactive learning, or simply provide children with time to wind down. This process can be found through apps such as “Elmo Loves 123,” which teaches children how to count and complete simple addition and subtraction. Similarly, “Quick Maths,” which targets kids age 7 to 12, challenges their math skills.
“There are many learning apps and tutorial apps available now, like Khan Academy, that are very beneficial,” said Hardgrove. These interactive games allow children to become more engaged and excited about what they’re learning, bringing their educational experiences to life. Flooded with bright colors and riveting cartoon animations, these educational apps are a prime example of the ways in which technology can benefit children.
“I am certain that my young children would spend an unhealthy amount of time on these devices if we did not control their usage,” said Baker.“This would limit their normal social interaction, reduce time on homework, reduce time with sports, and reduce time using their imagination for normal childhood play.”
The problem with technology for kids today is not its existence, but its pervasiveness. The solution to the negative aspects of technology cannot be complete abolition; the solution is simply moderation.