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kid ipadIt may come as no surprise that the millennial generation is the most avid users of digital technology. Though only 29% of the population, they account for 41% of the national use of smart phones. They use some digital device from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed. They have never known a world without the internet. They grew up in a school system that was encouraged to accept digital devices and use them as part of the educational process. We all know of school districts now promising iPads or Chromebooks for everyone. But new research is showing that all this digital access is causing more distraction, lower academic progress and actual developmental delays for some students.

A new study by Bernard McCoy University of Nebraska Lincoln was published in the Journal of Media Education which shows that students are becoming more and more distracted by their digital devices. A survey of 675 respondents found that college students spent 20.9% of their class time using their digital devices for things not related to the class. The study built on previous studies which showed:

  • Test scores were 6.4% higher in schools where cell phone use was banned. (Beland and Murphy 2015)
  • 71% of teachers felt entertainment media available on digital devices shortened student attention spans and their ability to persevere on challenging tasks (Richtel 2012) while 60% said it hurt students’ ability to write and communicate face-to-face.
  • 64% of teachers believe that digital technology “did more to distract students than help them academically.” (Purcell 2012)

To be fair, other more recent studies attempted to lesson the impact of this perceived distraction and blamed older, less tech savvy teachers’ misperceptions of a student’s ability to multi-task.

McCoy’s study, however, indicates that the older studies may have been more accurate. In his 2015 study McCoy’s respondents said that technology use in the classroom led to them not paying attention (89%), disrupting others (38.5%) and missing instruction (80.5%).  Interestingly, 42% of them felt that others use of digital devices was distracting to them and boys were more distracted than girls. More than a quarter of the students who responded said their grade suffered from digital device use in the classroom and more than half of them (52.8%) felt it was beneficial to have classroom policies limiting the use of digital devices for non-classroom purposes.

This is what the adult child looks like in the digital landscape. They did not have smart phones, tablets and ipads as toddlers, but readily adopted the technology when introduced in middle and high school. What about the effects of technology on this next rising co-hort whose parents may have handed them a smart phone or tablet to distract them during life’s “boring” times (e.g. at a restaurant waiting for food, waiting in a check out line, riding in the car) when they were very young?

Kate Highfield, lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood at Macquarie University Australia,  found through her research that most of the apps purchased for children (85%) were just “drill and practice” apps that asked children to repeat an action or recall simple facts. Think flash cards. While these apps take advantage of the developing mind’s ability to easily memorize things, a steady diet of them can lead to lower neural development. In addition, she cautions that excessive in-game rewards in these apps have been found to lead to unrealistic expectations of rewards in the future.  Her solution is a balance between screen time and real world time. Dr Highfield suggests parents mimic the concepts in some of the more  passive gaming apps with real world items like blocks and clay to promote more advanced thinking.

Her comments do not address the less attentive parents’ use of technology with young children, those who do not limit the device’s use to age appropriate content. Very young children have gotten access to inappropriate Youtube videos, been assaulted by internet advertising aimed at the parent’s Google profile, and can even get into violent games like Kali Zombie Rush.

Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist said,

Further analysis of the impact of technology on the developing child indicates that while the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and attachment systems are under stimulated, the visual and auditory sensory systems are in “overload.” This sensory imbalance creates huge problems in overall neurological development, as the brain’s anatomy, chemistry and pathways become permanently altered and impaired. Young children who are exposed to violence through TV and video games are in a high state of adrenalin and stress, as the body does not know that what they are watching is not real. Children who overuse technology report persistent body sensations of overall “shaking”, increased breathing and heart rate, and a general state of “unease.” This can best be described as a persistent hypervigalent sensory system, still “on alert” for the oncoming assault. While the long term effects of this chronic state of stress in the developing child are unknown, we do know that chronic stress in adults results in a weakened immune system and a variety of serious diseases and disorders.

Child psychiatrist Philip Tam is also concerned about the reward system established by digital games and social networking praise. He found teenagers very susceptible to these reward systems.  “There is no other technology that I can think of in human society where the effort-to-reward ratio is so low,” he said to the Sydney Morning Herald. The result is sometimes a withdrawal from real world activity and social interaction, and a hostile response to being asked to step away from the games. Parents will recognize this as a gaming addiction.

Dr. Rowan observed,

The impact of rapidly advancing technology on the developing child has seen an increase of 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., causally related to technology overuse. Diagnoses of ADHD, autism, coordination disorder, developmental delays, unintelligible speech, learning difficulties, sensory processing disorder, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders are associated with technology overuse, and are increasing at an alarming rate.

Far from teaching persistence, cooperation, improved communication and critical thinking skills, technology, when used inappropriately or without targeted intent and limitations, can actually harm our childrens’ development and academic progress. Beware the shiny box that promises oh so much good.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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