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A lost childhood? How the digital age is changing our brains

ByRufus Bouverie

Apr 24, 2018

Childhood has changed. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes in the The Little Prince “All grown-ups were once children … but only few of them remember it.” Yet, whether adults remember how to be a child is becoming increasingly irrelevant, as the children of today have to contend with a plethora of issues that arguably thrust them into early adulthood. Though there have always been many hurdles to leap over as we journey into adulthood, as time goes on, it is clear we are continuing to erect more and more hurdles, illustrating a broader trend of the adult world infringing on our childhood. However, to pinpoint a solitary cause that enforces premature adulthood on our children would be wrong, ignoring the abundance of interlocking factors that affect how we grow up.

An element often cited as forcing children into early adulthood is the increase in time spent on technology. Yet blaming technology for causing increased stresses amongst our young people ignores the important role it conceivably plays in how we raise young people in the 21st Century. Indeed, technology is arguably vastly beneficial for educational purposes.

Faced with a digital revolution which is only just getting started, is it important to ensure we leave a digitally savvy populace, able to cope with this revolution, or is the increased reliance on technology hampering our children’s brains and social skills?

Children need to play outside. There is clear scientific consensus on this. Playing outside, it is argued, enables our children to imagine, to create multi-universal, abstract, inconceivable worlds, of which they are the sole occupant. It forces them to create adventures using otherwise boring objects: sticks springing into life as swords, castles emerging from breeze blocks, molehills becoming islands on which to be marooned.

Nature allows us to develop our immune systems, to grapple with trees and gravity, to experiment with mud and creepy crawlies, and to nurture our bilateral co-ordination as well as develop our planned movement patterns (praxis). Furthermore, as a recent study by the Princes Trust illustrates, stress-levels among Britain’s youth are rising. Nature’s role as a calming influence has never been so needed.

But our children are not getting enough time outside. Children need two to three hours of rough and tumble play outside a day, yet under 10s reportedly only spend an average of eight hours a week outside. This is purportedly a factor in the broader decrease in child cognitive development by two years, with children becoming increasingly unable to grasp the concepts of heights and weights, as well as losing the ability to think abstractly at the normal age. Yet with the average child having spent a full year of 24 hour days on technology by the age of seven, it is evident what is occupying our children’s time instead.

The problem only gets worse with the quickening of the journey towards adulthood; the average teen spends more than eight hours, or a third of the day, in front of some form of technology, greater than the amount of sleep we often allow ourselves.

However, arguing that technology is at fault for the curtailment of child development by replacing the time spent outside is perhaps a weak link. Indeed, in past generations, ‘the outside’ was arguably much more readily available, due to the closer proximity of green spaces and a decreased regard for health and safety.

Furthermore, that parents are increasingly occupying their children using technological means, of which 85 per cent say they do, is not a fault. In a society which allows the cost of full time childcare to climb to £232.84 a week, often necessitating that both parents work, parents are forced to choose between entertaining their child via convenient technology or facing astronomical costs.

A further issue attributed to the increase in time spent on technology is its effects on social interaction. With our adult social lives increasingly moving online, this has conceivably been imitated by children. Faced with an expansion in technology use, by nature a very isolating and lonely activity, children are being inhibited from developing necessary social skills. This lack of human connection not only has a detrimental effect on facilitating an optimal arousal state later in life, but it also has negative effects on our ability to empathise, selfregulate and interact with one another, severely affecting our emotional wellbeing.

Not only is technology in danger of giving rise to a generation of anti-social children, but children are also swiftly having to adapt to and endure the online social world. Having gone from an era where socialising as a child was experienced at school and outside, children’s social lives are now allowed to enter their personal spaces.

Not so easy to regulate, this has the potential to allow for social anxiety to follow children home, infringing on time in which they should be allowed to feel safe from social pressures or bullies. With a quarter of children having been bullied online, this illustrates just one way that the internet increasingly presents a danger for young people.

It is also believed that technology has stressful effects on the body. With half of two to four year olds having played video games, and 66 per cent of children under two having watched TV, consumption of technology has become a typical part of young peoples’ days.

However, young peoples’ brains have not had sufficient experience to fully realise that the frequent violence shown in games and TV is fake, leading to unease and stress as their bodies cope by releasing high levels of adrenaline. This is true of an overuse of technology in general, with studies demonstrating that too much technology leads to a high state of unease, increased heart rate and a weaker immune system.

A further stress researched is the excessive stimulant of the brain. With us cramming 14 hours of technology use into nine hours due to multitasking, (80 per cent of TV watching being done whilst using a further device), the brain can not take this level of activity, causing shocking drops in self control and focus. This goes hand in hand with research suggesting the importance of boredom whilst growing up, forcing children to act creatively and use their initiative.

Yet, there is an argument that video games are constructive to a child’s development. Claiming that it enables the development of greater hand-eye co-ordination and problem-solving skills, this presents the argument that technology has a role to play in the development of our children’s lives, part of a broader debate as to whether technology has a positive educational effect.

The idea is that the increase in technology has allowed for children to learn interactively, allowing for those who might not necessarily learn in the socratic method, to learn in a way that suits their requirements. This allows for a more inclusive educational environment.

However, facilitating technology usage in classrooms arguably infringes on a time that has the potential to be technology free, with the screen time contributing to the fact that over the course of their childhood, a young person will spend more time in front of a screen than at school.

Perhaps this is necessary. Many predict the technological revolution to only get bigger, affecting more and more people. An age of driverless cars, drones and an increase in automation puts conventional jobs in question, so perhaps it is necessary to ensure that future generations are technologically literate. Indeed, 23 per cent of parents give technology to their children at a young age to ensure this.

As recently as 2008, the government advised that children should be introduced to technology from a young age, despite the fact that both Canada and France have banned TV aimed at those under three, with Taiwan fining parents if their children use too much. This raises the question as to whether it is necessary to instigate technological literacy this early on: does the average six year old really need to have the same technological capabilities as an average 45 year old?

The argument that technology can aid our development is refuted by Catherine Steiner-Adair who argues that video games have helped facilitate a drop in attention spans, the average attention span decreasing by four seconds over the last 20 years.

Furthermore, the belief that technology has revolutionised our education system, allowing for a greater educational experience that is more inclusive, has also recently been shown to be false. To put it simply: we do not learn via technological means as well as we do through other humans – we haven’t evolved that way.

There are strong arguments for and against the usage of technology educationally. However, it is important to recognise that even if we deem technology to be detrimental for our children’s health and wellbeing, as the evidence suggests it is, this isn’t the fault of children, nor their parents. As study after study shows, technology is addictive. According to one recent study, a remarkable 20 per cent of college-goers are addicted to technology.

There is a reason why the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and many others in Silicon Valley, refuse or heavily monitor the technological consumption of their children. Some scientists believe sustained interaction with technology alters the reward circuitry in children’s brains. Our brains release dopamine when they are ‘rewarded’ by pleasurable stimulation. Yet due to the sheer length of time we spend on technology, the brain is becoming impervious to the effects of technology. In order to get the same ‘kick’ from our devices, we are forced to spend longer in front of them.

The debate over how much technology we should allow our children to use is clearly multifaceted and complex, with the detrimental effects on our health competing with the growing necessity to ensure our children’s technological literacy.

Although the impingement of technology on our daily lives is necessary and inexorable, the innocence of childhood does not need to be invaded in this way. Our children will grow up never not being constantly confronted by technology,  so  let’s try and shield it from them when they’re young.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

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