December 05, 2014

toddler on a computer

Children are attracted to screens, just like adults. Credit: Paul Inkles / Flickr Creative Commons

If you have a cell phone or tablet, you’ve probably felt the familiar itch to check your email during a date, or play Candy Crush late into the night instead of going to bed. There’s just something about screens that makes them hard to shut off.
 
So if screens are that compelling for adults, what is their effect on children?
 
“For some people – children and adults – it becomes like an addiction,” says Dr. Gary Small, a professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Small, a neuroscientist, is trying to discover why it’s so hard for us to break away by pinpointing the parts of the brain that are engaged when we use technology.
 
“Our thought patterns change,” he says. “We have sort of a staccato quality of thinking.”
 
The immediate gratification of technology is a big part of what makes it so attractive to young children, says Dr. Tovah Klein, the director of Barnard College’s Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive. But the easy enjoyment that tech offers might also hinder elements of a child’s development.
 
“It almost puts them into a hyper state,” says Klein of screen-based games and videos. “Not having a chance to be bored is a serious problem for children, because being bored is a time when children think and imagine. It can be filled with wonder. That’s important time.”
 
The mediated experience technology offers could also be changing the very way children relate to others. Small recently compared two groups of 6th graders; one that spent five days at a nature camp without any screens, and the other that continued their regular technology use. The result? The screen-free kids were better at reading human emotions after only a few days away from their cell phones and computers.
 
“The good news about that study is that if we give our brains a chance, they can improve,” he says. “They can adjust very quickly.”
 
But don’t ban your children from iPads just yet. Technology still holds a lot of benefits for children, if used in tandem with offline learning and person-to-person interaction.
 
“We have to help parents and children appreciate that observational thinking time is really important,” Klein adds. Leaving children alone with their thoughts can be just as valuable for their development as playing an online reading game, or paging through what was also once considered a cutting-edge technology: a book.
 
“Screens are like books on steroids,” says Small. “Our brains love them because we love novelty, and the computers allow us to continue to explore.”

Body and Mind, technology, Gary Small, Tovah Klein, kids

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