In this post, we're going to look at the impact of technology on young kids and what value some of these tech toys have on learning.
It's the year 2017 and technology is everywhere. Cell phones are getting smaller (and bigger!), laptops are getting lighter, homes are getting smarter and robots are taking over the world. OK, the last one's not really happening (yet) but technology is certainly taking up a very significant part of our day - both at school/work and home. These days, kids have a better grasp on technology than some of their parents, and some toddlers are playing on iPads before they can even talk. But is the increase of tech toys for kids a good or a bad thing? What is the impact these technologies are having on our children?
There are lots of conflicting reports as to whether too much technology can be harmful for young children especially as no one can seem to agree on what "too much' really means. Unfortunately, there's also been very little research done on the impact of technology on a child's development.
Is watching Baby Einstein on TV any less harmful than watching it on an iPad? Is watching a Tv show better than playing an age-appropriate app on the tablet? Is finger painting on a piece of paper really any different to virtual finger-painting onto a screen? Is the impact of technology on kids that much worse than the impact of TV?
Well, first we need to say that not all things are equal. In other words, comparing one activity on the iPad with another is more like comparing apples to oranges (no pun intended). So, arguably, watching a kid's show on a big screen versus a little screen may not have too much impact on children (well, other than possible curvature of the spine as they lean over a small screen for hours but we'll get to that later).
Watching a TV show or YouTube clip on the iPad is however very different from playing an age-appropriate/educational app on the iPad. Same fruit, different nutritional value, so to speak. I'll stop with the fruit analogies for now.
The Impact of Technology: Pros
When watching TV, kids are being passive, whereas when playing on technology, kids are being interactive; their brains are being stimulated. They're exposed to a wide range of subjects and scenarios and are needing to think and react - understanding basic aspects of cause and effect, as well as action and reaction. They're using hand-eye coordination and perfecting their fine motor skills to press stuff and move it about the screen. They're practicing their reading and math skills as they follow directions and keep track of their score.
When my kids were 5 or 6, they loved playing Fruit Ninja on my smart phone (where you slice fruit in half by swiping with your finger while avoiding the falling bombs). It's a fast-paced game, that involves concentration, quick thinking, fast reactions and a speedy forefinger. My twins would take turns to play in an attempt to beat each other's score. At the end of their turn, they'd show me their score and I'd help them read the numbers and figure out who won that round and by how many. I'm convinced that playing games on the iPad is how they learnt to read large numbers. I'd love to say they are also now math geniuses as a result, but the jury's still out on that one. They do love fruit however.
When playing on technology, kids are also occupied and less likely to get themselves into trouble through boredom, especially if you're busy doing something else. As parents, we can't watch our kids 24/7. There are siblings to look after, meals to prepare, work to be done, laundry to fold, calls to make... the list is endless. I'll hold my hands up and admit that many a time I've used iPads and TVs as babysitters while I've tidied up or caught up on emails, or simply needed a few minutes peace. But it's the over-reliance on this babysitter that's the problem. It's estimated that some children are spending an eye-watering 7 hours a day on technology (The US Department of Health and Human Services).
The Impact of Technology: Cons
While it's clear that many tech toys do have their benefits, there are some costs associated with the overuse of technology that we should be mindful of. Anything that results in our children sitting there for long periods of time, devoid of physical activity and social interaction can't be good - irrespective of whether it's watching TV or sitting there playing games.
Kids who are spending too much time in front of a screen, be it large or small, are likely not getting enough physical exercise. This can lead to a myriad of health problems including childhood obesity, diabetes and delays in physical development. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; "slightly over 20 percent of children aged 2-5 are already overweight or obese."
In addition, spending too much time, and on a regular basis, leaning over a screen can result in bad posture as well as neck and back injuries later in life.
So, finding a game (think Xbox Kinect or the Wii as examples) which requires your kids to move around, jump up and down, and get off the couch, is a great way to help lessen some of the physical downsides of technology.
Relying too much on technology limits a child's imagination and creativity. Instead of him building a fort out of a card box or playing dress up and chasing dragons, he's engrossed in a world of his own, not noticing the minutes or hours go past. We are already aware of the value of play but many of these integral learnings cannot be met when technology is the main form of play.
As kids are getting more absorbed into their electronics, they are not engaging with the world around them - this is leading to a lack of social skills, and problems developing interpersonal relationships. Living in this fantasy world can make them less sympathetic to real life problems. According to Health Research Funding; "More kids are being diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. ADHD, coordination disorder, anxiety, sensory processing disorder and depression among kids are on the rise. Also, let us not forget the premise of cyber bullying".
Siting with your child as she plays on her electronics and engaging her in conversation about it, showing her you're interested in what she's doing, praising her efforts, helping her when she's stuck, are great ways to bring tech into playtime without triggering some of the more negative impacts of technology.
Parents of Generation Z are having to navigate around unfamiliar territory. We weren't weaned on electronics. We didn't have much of a choice TV-wise; we had to wait for our TV show to start. We had to cry when we missed it (unless we knew how to work a VCR!) because we couldn't just pop online and catch up. Generation X has all the best advancements at their fingertips and we need to monitor and guide them so that we limit the more negative impact of technology and take advantage of the educational and mentally rewarding sides of these awe-inspiring technological breakthroughs.
So, if used with caution, educational apps, tech toys and even TV shows are great ways for children to sharpen their developing brains. Like with most things, moderation and finding that balance should be key when considering the impact of technology on our kids. There are so many fun and well thought-out educational apps and tech toys that kids don't even realized they're being "educated". But let's not underestimate the importance of being active, being sociable and enjoying some good old-fashioned playtime!