A recent blog post has caused much concern amongst parents and teachers alike in recent days. I have fielded a couple of media calls about this controversial post and have also had friends and worried parents asking me about some of the claims in the blog post. So I thought I should respond to the post at the centre of the controversy and allay some of your fears. I also want to clarify some points made in the blog post.
In a nutshell, Cris Rowan, the blog’s author, calls on parents, teachers, and government organisations to ban the use of all handheld devices for children under the age of 12 years. She is an occupational therapist and a child development expert and has written a book titled Virtual Child. She provides ten “research evidenced reasons for this ban”.
And this is what I want to clarify. I want to start by acknowledging that there are some arguments that Rowan proposes that I actually agree with:
1. Rapid brain development does occur in the first two to three years of life. Neuroscience has confirmed this. There is no doubt that the first two to three years of life is a vital period for brain development. This is why babies do not need screen-time. We have some recent research evidence that confirms that babies do not learn from baby media.
2. I also agree that there are increasing rates of childhood obesity and this is likely to be attributed to today’s children being more sedentary because of technology use. For example, we know that children with television sets in their bedrooms are more likely to be obese than those children who do not have a TV in their bedroom.
3. Technology has also been associated with sleep problems. I also agree. Technology use has been shown to have an adverse impact on children’s sleep patterns when it is used in the 90-minute period before children sleep. The light emitted from devices, coupled with the fast-paced on-screen action has been shown to cause sleep delays in children and over times these delays accumulate in a sleep debt.
4. Violent media content is associated with (note, I did not specifically say causes) aggressive and anti-social behaviour. In particular, we have increasing evidence that confirms that video game violence is a cause of increased aggression in the player.
So I propose that there is NO NEED to ban handheld devices for children under 12 Years. Why?
1. These devices are here to stay. Whether we like it or not, technology is not going to disappear. Rather than ‘banning’ technology (or fearing it) we need to have open conversations about how to best use technology with young children. We need to look for ways to optimise, not stifle, children’s development in a digital age. What types of TV shows, DVDs, apps, websites and games are suitable for young children? How can children actually learn from them?
2. Research has not shown that digital devices diminish executive functioning skills or impair attention skills. Rowan claims that “Stimulation to a developing brain caused by overexposure to technologies (cell phones, internet, iPads, TV), has been shown to negatively affect executive functioning, and cause attention deficit, cognitive delays, impaired learning, increased impulsivity, and decreased ability to self-regulation e.g. tantrums” However, there is yet to be any published data that I am aware of that examines the effects of mobile phones and iPads on these skills. Note the date of the references that Rowan cites- both studies were conducted prior to the release of the iPad in 2010. Furthermore, we do not have research-evidence that shows that digital technologies cause attention problems or hamper executive function. Sure, we have studies that provide a correlation but this doesn’t prove that media causes these problems.
3. We need to teach young children how to form healthy media habits, from the outset. Banning technology is not the solution. We need to inform parents about the best ways to use these devices with young children. What does ‘healthy media use’ look like?
4. The Christakis (2004) study that Rowan cites about “high-speed media” causing attention deficit and reduced concentration and memory is methodologically flawed. One of the problems with this study is that the children were not clinically examined or diagnosed with ADHD. Instead, parents assessed their behavior at age 7 using five criteria, two of which are not associated with ADHD (confused and obsessive). The study also did not acknowledge that some of the children who were three in the study may have already started to display ADHD traits and that increased TV use may have been a result of and not the cause of ADHD. Does the chicken come before or after the egg?
5. Radiation emission is a contentious area and one that I am further exploring. At this point in time, the research evidence does not indicate that digital devices are harmful for young children. However, I am also aware that this research is in its infancy. Due to possible risk of harm, I always advise parents to exercise caution and minimise any radiation emission with tablet and mobile phone devices. For example, switching mobile and tablet devices to airplane mode and disabling Wi Fi when children are using them, reduces their radiation exposure. Similarly, turning off routers when not in use is another practical way to minimize possible harm.
6. Not all children are addicted to technology. Rather than banning technology because a small proportion of children are addicted (Rowan cites Gentile’s 2009 study that indicated that 1 in eleven children aged 8-18 years was addicted to technology), we need to look at teaching parents and children how to set parameters around media use, so that it can be used in a healthy way.
7. Today’s parents are the first generation of parents who are raising complete ‘digital natives’ and who are also using digital devices. Rather than ostracising and criticising parents’ use of technology, we need to have open discussions about how we should use technology with and around children. We know that children absorb our habits (including our media habits) so we certainly need to be mindful about how we use smartphones, TV and tablets around children. When parents know better, they (usually) do better.
8. Parents need to know how much media time is appropriate for young children. Parents are often unaware of guidelines regarding screen-time. Once again, banning technology is not a long-term solution. It is merely a band-aid solution for a bigger problem.
9. Rowan’s blog post implies that all ‘handheld devices’ are created equal. This is certainly not the case. David Kleeman recently said, “A screen is a screen is a meme”. Young children use handheld devices in different ways. For example, children may use a tablet device to simply watch a YouTube video. This is a very passive use of the device. On the other hand, they may use a movie-making app to record, edit and publish a movie they have created with a friend. The latter example requires significantly more cognitive investment on the child’s behalf. They are completely different learning experiences.
10. My biggest criticism with this blog post is that the positive potential of digital media is completely ignored. We have ample and increasing evidence to confirm that when technology is used intentionally and in developmentally-appropriate ways that young children’s learning and development can actually be enhanced, not hampered by technology.
Aghh. Now that feels better. There you have my personal and professional take on Rowan’s post.
Tell me in the comments below, which, if any, of Rowan’s ideas, do you agree with?