The Influence of Digital Technology on Young Minds
Does technology affect child development?
With the rapid growth of technology in recent years, most children and young people now use at least one form of technology daily, ranging from accessing the internet to do homework, watching online content and gaming, to using social media platforms. But how does digital technology influence young minds?
Children in the Digital Age
Studies from around the World, for instance, Ofcom Children’s Media Use and Attitudes Report in the UK, Common Sense Media Census in the US, and Roy Morgan Survey in Australia, records that increasingly younger children are using technology more frequently.
The most popular device among children remains a smartphone. In Canada, according to Hong and Craig, 2018, 23.5 percent of children aged 8–10 own a smartphone. Figures announced by the Childwise in the UK demonstrate smartphone ownership grows with age, from one in five 5-6 year-olds to two in five 7-8 year-olds, and more than half of those aged 9-10. By the time children start secondary school, nine in ten children own a smartphone, increasing to almost all 13-16 year-olds. In the US, more than half of children own a smartphone by the age of 11. American teenagers spend 7 hours, 22 minutes a day using screens, and 8–12 year-olds were found to be spending, on average, 4 hours 44 minutes using screens daily (this excludes screens used at school or for homework).
The statistics inevitably demonstrate that we are more connected than we have ever been. The question at the forefront of every parent’s mind persists – how does technology affect child development?
Worrying headlines such as “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and “warnings that young brains being re-wired by digital technology” will no doubt cause a degree of anxiety for parents, but to what extent do these discoveries reflect what we genuinely know rather than creating fears with means we do not yet fully comprehend?
Research studies remain inconclusive to support evidence-based results on optimal amounts of screen use. They do not provide evidence of a causal relationship between screen-based activities and mental health concerns. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is wise to take a precautionary approach as set out in their tips and guidelines for parents on how to manage the family screen time and how much screen time is deemed appropriate. These guidelines suggest that toddlers younger than 18 to 24 months ought to avoid the use of digital media, except for video chatting. For children 18 to 24 months, it is recommended that parents watch digital media with them so that they learn from watching by discussing what they see. It is further advised to narrow the screen time for preschool children, ages 2 to 5, to just 1 hour a day, and co-viewing is recommended.
A further new study published last week indicates that screen viewing might replace physical activity through early childhood, and suggest that reducing screen viewing time in early childhood might encourage healthier behaviours and associated outcomes later in life.
While it is inevitable that technology will have an impact on children, in one way or another, the key is to maximize the cognitive, physical, and social advantages it brings while minimizing the dangers.
Parents themselves can display appropriate technology use for their children, and media should be viewed as a tool rather than a babysitter, reward, or to discipline. Research indicates that parents’ own screen time is significantly associated with child screen time, with children as young as 2, 3, or 4 routinely playing with their parents’ smartphones or tablets.
Gaining on the Swings, Losing on the Roundabouts
Unsurprisingly, there are positive as well as negative angles to the use of digital technology amongst children. Digital media that divert from social interactions might impair learning, while other media can increase social interactions and education. Media can also promote teamwork and team-building in original forms, while on the other hand, digital media can cultivate unhealthy and conflicting personal and social outcomes.
Our children do not live in a split of real-world contrasting online lives – both are indispensable to their development. The digital world can provide connections to family and friends, strengthening support networks, aiding identity formation, and exposing young minds to varied perspectives.
Concerns regarding adverse outcomes of digital media use, such as cyberbullying and self-harm, often resemble in-person bullying in terms of its negative emotional and social influence, but possibly more severe due to anonymity and the network effect. Children and teens ought to learn the impacts of digital media and their lasting digital footprint.
Behavioural outcomes in the digital world are not very dissimilar from those by earlier generations. Even though the platform differs, the behaviours are merely the same. While there is both uncertainty and opportunity online, the risk is not necessarily always unfavourable, and opportunities to fail safely can be worthwhile. Parents should, therefore, aim to concede social media protocol and privacy safeguards, and proactively address them with children.
There is a distinct call to direct more research funding to issues concerning children’s exposure and use of digital media, a field that is still rising. Given the multi-faceted world of technology, it is perhaps unsurprising that the story of its influence on young minds is exceptionally complex. Many unresolved puzzles remain regarding technology’s role in children’s development. What we do know is that, in technology, we have a set of tools that can alter children’s behaviour. What remains, which is not trivial, is to discover how to direct this capacity to produce aspired outcomes purposefully.