Digital-age children, even down to the very youngest, divide their time between three major innovations: television, computers, and video games, but is there harm in children spending increasing amounts of time engaging in media-related activities? There are no easy answers in this highly-technological 21st century; parents need to consider all digital media in order to determine what is best for their child. Well-known journalist Marie Winn (2002) states, “Today sensible parents tend to lump the various electronic technologies into one category. They talk about ‘screen activities’ and ‘screen time’” (p. 196). Dr. Larry Rosen, as quoted by associate editor of Mashable magazine Stephanie Buck (2011) “There is a very real possibility of overdoing it . . . Technology must be chosen correctly” (p. 1).
Many inventions have changed and shaped modern society; however, the impact of these advances has been primarily on adults. In contrast, the technological development that has had the most profound effect on children was the introduction of television (Winn, 2002, p. 283). From the earliest years, parents have worried about what television viewing might be doing to their children’s development. Young children learn by playing; first they imitate what they observe, and then they evolve into purposeful pretending in which they create a world they can control and manipulate. As children age, they move from parallel play to actual interaction with others. They learn by doing. Television, however, is a passive activity. Instead of creating and manipulating, the child assumes a more passive role that often takes the place of play. Instead of actively manipulating their environment and actively acquiring language, the children simply watch. Interestingly, Bittman et al. (2011) conclude it is not so much the time spent watching television that influences children’s acquisition of language from birth to age four, as much as the amount of parental involvement and interaction (p. 171). Other studies have indicated that this early TV viewing does have a negative impact on language acquisition and vocabulary development that can even carry over into later school years (Winn, 2002, p. 285).
If parents are concerned that children are being heavily influenced by television, sometimes it seems to be a concern that they do not have enough exposure to computers. Spurred by what Winn (2002) calls “canny marketing” (p. 190) parents are buying software designed for younger and younger children. “Manufacturers’ advertisements preyed on parental anxieties about their kids’ development… and their desires to give their offspring an educational jumpstart” (Winn, 2002, p. 190). Parents feel compelled to expose younger and younger children to developmental software in an effort to ensure they will not be left behind academically or socially. Buck (2011) however cites a study that links the overuse of technology to a change in brain development (p. 2). “Human connection, eye contact and dialogue are paramount. Devices are hugely limiting this important exposure” leading to an increase in mental illnesses and a change in even the formation of the brain, particularly the frontal lobe” (Buck, 2011, p. 2). Quite the opposite was reported by Bittman et al. (2011), who found that the effect of the “use of computers in infancy appears to be negligible . . . computer access (but not computer games) at later ages was associated with increased traditional literacy” (p. 172).
Interestingly, Winn (2002) feels that while it is not the same as interacting with peers, video games do allow children to be less passive. “Kids get to do something, and something happens as a result” (p. 194). This is offset, however, by the development of an expectation of instant gratification. Children who are used to video interaction “may not be willing to make the long, arduous efforts necessary to play an instrument well or excel at a sport” (Winn, 2002, p. 195). There also appears to be an addictive element as well. Winn (2002) cites a study done at Hammersmith Hospital in London that found that playing video games doubles the brain’s production of dopamine, equivalent to the amount that can come from an injection of a powerful stimulant (p. 195).
The problem remains for parents to decide how much screen time they want their children to have. Studies provide conflicting information about the positive and negative effects of television, computers, and video games. The reality remains that digital-age children will be exposed to electronic media; to expect to be able to raise a child away from all these influences is unrealistic, if not impossible. Bittman concludes that “the intriguing prospect that it is not ‘exposure’ to media that harms language acquisition . . . , but the absence of age-appropriate, guided interaction by parents” (p. 172). Perhaps there is no substitute for sound parenting.
Bittman, M., Rutherford, L., Brown, J., & Unsworth, L. (2011). Digital Natives? New and Old Media and Children’s Outcomes. Australian Journal of Education, 55(2), 161-175.
Buck, S. (2011). Kids and Technology: The Developmental Health Debate. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2011/08/09/kids-tech-developmental-health/ 11/20/12.
Winn, M. (2002). The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life (2nd revised ed.). New York, New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.
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