In a world where 72 percent of iTunes’ top-selling education apps are designed for preschoolers and elementary school children, the (albeit limited) studies caution parents to monitor and discourage an excessive and imbalanced use of screen-based technologies both at school and at home.
A recent report by the British Office for National Statistics found that excessive use of video games and social media may have negative health risks and could adversely affect the “well-being” and happiness of our children. Moreover, the report’s conclusions were released just days after Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, Baroness Greenfield, claimed that today’s children’s brains are failing to develop properly because of over-exposure to screen-based technology at a young age.
The ONS study reported that children in the UK who had access to computer games, game consoles, and the internet for less than an hour during the normal school day reported a higher well-being than those who used these technologies for four hours or more. The children who were over-exposed were also at a higher risk for weight problems because of their lack of engagement in physical activities.
ONS also found that children who spent too much time chatting online were at a higher risk of experiencing unwanted harassment. “The anonymity of the web… removes the constraints that would normally apply for what one might regard as human nature,” Greenfield said on cyber-bullying.
“Most of us, by the time we reach adulthood, have an inner conceptual framework that enables us to interpret the world and have a robust sense of our own identity… What concerns me is when screen-based technology is used a lot, or by young people who don’t have the counterbalance of a highly-developed brain,” Greenfield told The Daily Telegraph.
Children who use media from a young age externally construct their identity, she explained, which then is dependent on the moment-to-moment reactions of others. This generation of children is at risk for obsessive personalities, poor self-control, short attention spans and the inability to build and formulate basic social skills and emotional reactions, she warned. Dr Warburton, the author of “Growing Up Fast and Furious,” also claims that emerging evidence suggests screen use and abuse is linked to disrupted sleep patterns and attention deficit problems.
On the other hand, statistics have also found that video games and social media can help in kids’ social development, and interactive games can encourage children’s learning, especially in comparison to passive videos or television. The ONS also recognized several advantages to a moderate use of technology, such as allowing shy children to communicate and enhancing existing friendships. Recent data showed that only six percent of UK children from 10-15 used online chatrooms or played on game consoles for more than four hours a day.
According to Greenfield, however, more than half of 13 to 17-year-olds in the UK now spend more than 30 hours a week using video games, computers, e-readers, mobile phones and other screen-based technologies, and ONS reports that almost 85 percent of children in England have access to a computer and the internet at home. Furthermore, psychologist Wayne Warburton at Macquarie University reports that US teenagers are using screens, including listening to music, for more than seven and a half hours a day outside of school.
Addiction to technology was also one of Greenfield’s major concerns, although ONS reported only rare occurrences of it. Educators, however, report many disruptions caused by social media and networking in the school setting, and believe their students have smaller attention spans. Furthermore, a 2011 Cisco Connected World Technology Report found that given the choice between the internet, social activities, dating, music, and anything else, college students around the world, including in the US, said they put the greatest importance in their daily lives on the internet.
Although reliable frameworks for appropriate amounts of screen-based technology use are limited, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents discourage TV for kids two and under and limit screen time for older children to less than two hours a day. Professor of psychology at California State University Larry Rosen also suggests the following ratio of screen time to other activities: 1 to 5 for very young children, 1 to 1 for pre-teens, and 5 to 1 for teenagers. Rosen also recommends that parents monitor for negative signs such as obsession or lack of attention.