The Impact of Digital Technology on Children: Part 1

Dr. John Davies, Head of School
In the latest school Pulse Blog post, Dr. John Davies, Head of School, takes a deep dive into the history of communication, the unprecedented recent shift in digital content and accessibility, the ramifications of online actions and habits by children and adults, and the potential physiological effects of constant digital connection.
I’ve been studying the impact of media on students for 30 years. When it comes to communication inventions, innovations and technologies I tend to be an optimist. My optimism is not unfounded. It is rooted in history. Virtually every development in communication from the invention of the alphabet to the computer has generated major debate and typically predictions of doom and gloom. I’ll share three examples that might surprise you. The Greeks didn’t invent writing but they vastly impacted the development of Western culture because they developed a much more efficient writing system that incorporated a user friendly alphabet which revolutionized the power of the written word. A great idea, right? Not according to Plato, one of the most influential thinkers in western history. Plato warned his fellow Greeks that writing would encourage forgetfulness in learners as they would quit relying on their memory and instead on the written word. His other concern was that once thoughts were committed to writing they would be subject to being misused or misunderstood by others. The philosopher was strongly opposed to this huge innovation in the history of written communication. Plato argued that no intelligent person would every put his thoughts into writing.

Fast forward 2500 years later. Writing technologies need not be as grand as alphabetic writing to draw the wrath of critics. In 1770 the eraser was invented, no doubt a useful device. About a hundred years later some enterprising person came up with the idea of attaching a small eraser to the top of a lead pencil. How convenient. At the beginning of the century pencils with erasers were harshly criticized and actually banned from some classrooms. The rationale was if the correction of errors was made easier then there would be a tendency for students to make more errors. (The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, Henry Petroski). Ironically, when the ball point pen was invented in the 1930s some critics complained that, unlike the pencil, you couldn’t correct your errors. In 20th century America the comic strip and later comic book, became a staple among young readers. Educators, politicians and physicians roundly criticized newspaper comics and comic books for causing everything from illiteracy to juvenile delinquency. The later caused such a stir that concerns over comic book reading fostering juvenile delinquency helped launch two Senate investigations in the 1950s. Some speculated that comic reading caused “linear dyslexia” as readers constantly moved their eyes vertically from the cartoon figures to the text balloons.   One can find critics of virtually every communication innovation and invention including paper, the printing press, the telephone, photography, the typewriter, television, movies, even the paperback book. Many of the impending disasters predicted by critics around these technologies proved to be unfounded.

As communication technologies have evolved over time so have the media consumption habits of children and adults alike. In the last decade, however, there has been a seismic shift in the way that young people access and use media. Much of that change has resulted from the growing digitalization of virtually all media. The media world of today’s student is 24/7 and extends to everything from educational TV programs to anonymous virtual conversations. Students go online to read, study, watch their favorite programs, listen to their favorite music, connect with their friends, Google a word definition, research a paper and a host of other activities. The result is that young people today spend a lot of time consuming digital content versus the print based media of the past. The electronic screen is a ubiquitous presence in all of our lives. More and more TV, DVD and computer screen time is being usurped by the smart phone. Phones get smaller and smaller as they get smarter and smarter. Today’s smartphone has more computing power than the entirety of NASA in 1969 when it put the first man on the moon.[1] By 2020 there will be six billion smart phones on our planet. To further extend the utility of smart phones there are now over 2.2 million apps that users can now download from the Apple App Store.[2] So what does the research tell us about the impact of “screen time” on our daily lives? Concerns regarding young people and digital devices center around health issues, specifically obesity and sleep, distractibility, cyberbullying, and addiction to using their devices. There are also major concerns around privacy, i.e., sexting, and vulnerability from individuals using the Internet to make inappropriate contact with minors. One generalization that continues to hold true is that a large number of young people, perhaps the majority, continue to put themselves at risk through their patterns of media consumption. They do not understand that once something gets posted online it’s out there forever. They also fail to understand that they unknowingly provide information on social media that allows others to invade their privacy.

One thing seems clear, all of us, young and old alike, spend a lot of time looking at digital screens. Common Sense Media found that children up to eight years of age spend an average of 2 hours and 19 minutes every day using screen media. Television and videos continue to be very popular with children accounting for 72% of all screen time. For 8- to 12-year-olds, the daily average time spent using screen media increased to 4 hours and 36 minutes.[3] Thirteen to 18 year olds consume more than six and a half hours of screen media a day.[4] It should be noted that these numbers, while high, gloss over a number of important variables, e.g., gender differences, socio-economic status, and passive versus active media use. It may be, however, that our children are taking their lead from the adults when it comes to screen time. A survey of nearly 1,800 parents of eight to 18 year olds found that parents log an average of nine hours and 22 minutes per day of screen time which includes smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions. The vast majority of that time, nearly eight hours is for personal use, not work.   Despite this large amount of screen time over three quarters of the parents surveyed also believed they are good role models for how to use digital technology.[5]

The American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed two concerns regarding screen time and young people. The research would suggest that too much time sitting in front of a screen displaces physical activity and there is a clear link between being too sedentary and obesity. Related to the obesity issue is what children and adolescents eat while they are watching TV and the advertising messages about high calorie snacks. By all accounts this is a sleep deprived generation of young people. In 2014 the Centers for Disease Control declared sleep deprivation a “public health epidemic” because of all the health related issues around lack of sleep including obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.The 24/7 nature of screen media and the Internet make it easy for young people to trade screen time for sleep time.

In Part 2 of the article, you will learn more about the addictive facets of digital and social media, multitasking and cognitive function, distractibility, and strategies for you and your children on how to manage screen time and disengage from technology.
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