Is technology bad for your child’s brain?

A child at the Diane Lindner-Goldberg Child Care Institute plays with an iPad.

A child at the Diane Lindner-Goldberg Child Care Institute in Hempstead, NY plays with an iPad.

The onslaught of the information age has done more than just connect the world; it may be affecting the brain development of children born as “digital natives.” A digital native is a person born in this age of technology and therefore familiar with computers/the Internet/smart phones from an early age. It is not uncommon for children of this generation to display considerable prowess in navigating iPhones or iPads. While this may be amusing to “digital immigrants,” older people born before the information age, the potential harm the exposure to so many screens can do to a child’s brain is nothing to scoff at.

According to a 2010 study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American child aged 8-18 spends seven and a half hours a day, seven days a week, immersed in media multitasking. A different study completed by the Long Island Index found children aged 2-6 spend an average of four hours a day being passively entertained by screens. If the media consumption of children continues at this pace, today’s children will have spent 10 years of their life watching TV by the time they are 30 years old.

An infographic that displays how much time kids spend in front of a screen

All data compiled by the Long Island Index, a project of the Rauch Foundation.

In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that exposure to screens is detrimental for children under two years old, who learn best by interacting with live people. Too much media consumption can, according to the several studies, lead to a delay in verbal skills, poor concentration, emotional instability, and an increased risk of developing Attention Deficit Disorder. Researchers from the University of Glasgow discovered that children who watched 3 hours of television a day at 5 years old were more likely to fight with and steal from their peers.

The AAP recommends that parents create a “screen-free zone” at home by limiting time in front of the television, computer and video games to one or two hours a day of interaction, with high-quality content only. This means removing televisions and computers from children’s, especially babies’, bedrooms.

The early childhood years are a crucial period in human brain development. In the first two years of life alone, the sheer size of the brain triples at a rate unparalleled by any other time in life. At this time, the brain forms and refines a complex network of connections, called synapses, which allow us to learn.  Babies are born with about 2,500 synapses, but by age three, that number explodes to nearly 15,000.  Over the years that number will decrease, which explains why children are more adept at learning different language skills than adults; there is more brainpower.

An infographic describing the effect of television on children's brain development

Infographic created by California State University Northridge, Common Sense Media, University of Michigan Health System and American Academy of Pediatrics

Despite technology’s negative reputation, it has been proven to be a valuable aide for some children. As digital natives, today’s children are innately good web researchers. A 2012 Pew Project study that was conducted in partnership with the College Board and the National Writing Project found that nearly 75% of teachers agreed that the Internet and search engines have a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills. In addition, assistive technologies have become an important classroom tool for students with disabilities. Voice recognition writing programs that can type notes for you can level the playing field for those impaired by dyslexia, dysgraphia (trouble writing) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

These differences in opinion pose a serious question to educational institutions: what should you do? The Diane Lindner-Goldberg Child Care Institute at Hofstra University offers early education programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The Child Care Institute (CCI) is licensed and in the spring of 2009 was reaccredited by The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

As director of the CCI, Donna Tudda is faced with the proposition of “upgrading” the center, as she called it, by incorporating new technology into their day-to-day activities. Despite her willingness to adapt to the future, Tudda is hesitant to act until technology such as iPads and Smart Boards can truly become more effective than traditional methods of teaching.  She is unsure if technology can replace the social emotional component of learning that comes from interaction with other people.

Tudda recently attended an exposition hosted by Hatch, a company that specializes in creating appropriate technology and scientifically research-based products for the early childhood market. At the conference, there was a display of a Smart Board that children can do puzzles on.

“You drag the puzzle piece from the corner to the middle and the Smart Board will say to you “that’s right, good job! Now, can so and so move a piece of the puzzle?” explained Tudda.  “I sat down with the technology person there and I said “listen, tell me what is the benefit of doing the puzzle this way, as opposed to me doing a puzzle one on one with a child at a table?” Isn’t the skill the same?”

She continued, “there’s a lot more that goes into the development for children than just sitting in front of a board or a screen and having it tell you to do things.”

At present, the CCI employs an active media policy. Screen time is limited to half hour sessions of exclusively educational content that has been previewed by the teacher beforehand and in some cases must incorporate some kind of movement, like watching a yoga DVD. Only children in the preschool and the pre-kindergarten classes can use technology in the classroom, and even among those classes, using electronic technology is a rare occurrence.

“We used to have five computers in our classroom, and now we only have one.  It doesn’t get used, there isn’t even much you can do on it,” said Kathleen Downing, a teacher of the pre-kindergarten class at the CCI. “I don’t think the children are missing out on anything because of it, they probably use enough of it at home. We do activities based on other forms of technology like gears and mixers instead.”

“It’s a draw [electronic technology]. It’s mesmerizing. All of a sudden you have eight toddlers looking at one screen and there are other activity stations open and nobody’s paying attention to them,” said Tudda.  “And toddlers do have a tendency to swarm, so you want them to be able to move independently, from one activity into another. I’m just a little hesitant to use more because it might start to take the place of other things, or become the thing that is the most popular.”

The CCI’s  policy of no technology is certainly not affecting their pupils’ digital knowledge. As digital natives, Tudda says the children come into the center already knowing basic technological skills, like locating apps on a smart phone or turning the page of an e-book. She maintains that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that the quality of their exposure to such technology may not be the highest.

“There are good apps out there, and for every one of them, there are 20 that are silly and just a waste of time. I think that before we go investing a lot of money on something that we can still do manually,” said Tudda.

Abigail, a pupil at the CCI, perusing an iPhon

Abigail, a pupil at the CCI, perusing an iPhone

Just this month, the CCI has launched their first initiative in modernizing: allotting refurbished iPhones and speaker systems from the University to each classroom in the building for the purpose of building a library of music that can be used as a teaching tool throughout the center, as well as a way to shoot and store photographs of the children.

As the CCI maps out their evolving media policy, they look to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)  for guidance. In 2012, the NAEYC released a joint position statement with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College.

The key message? When used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development. However, intentional use requires early childhood teachers and administrators to have information and resources regarding the nature of these tools and the implications of their use with children. Limitations are to be enforced for all children, with special consideration given to the use of technology with infants and toddlers. The position paper stresses that ongoing research and professional development on the matter is needed.

This position is one to take note of.  It advises gradual acclimation to the emerging digital landscape, which is a proactive precursor to changing traditional educational practices.  As we get further into the 2010’s, it becomes all the more pertinent that we maximize the potential of technology in all fields, especially education.

Want to check out more on this topic? Check out the Storify I made on this subject!

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