Kids and Tech: How Much Is Too Much?

As technology creeps into more and more areas of consumers’ everyday lives, the risk of overexposure to gadgets, content, games and high-tech services rises. How much is too much? This first article in a three-part series on the potential dangers of substantial exposure to technology focuses on the risk to infants and children.

From Baby Einstein tapes for infants to Reader Rabbitsoftware for two-year-olds toNintendo consoles given as early as fifth birthdays and beyond, technological advancements designed to stimulate the intellect and entertain the soul are overwhelming many 21st century kids.

Technology access has been linked to improved reading skills, but some believe that too much technology can impose dangers on today’s youth — including vision impairment, technology addiction and sexual solicitation. To be sure, technology opens the doors to a world that includes much more than convenience, knowledge and entertainment.

Pros and Cons

“In the past, we only had to be concerned about too much TV exposure. Now we have video games, computers and cell phones. It is overwhelming for young children and creates patterns of behaviors similar to addiction patterns,” said Mali Mann, M.D., adjunct clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.

“Their brains get used to too much auditory and visual stimulation — and in the absence of these stimulations, they do not know what to do with themselves,” she told TechNewsWorld. “They get anxious, restless, bored and aggressive.”

Researchers are conducting numerous studies to measure how much children of all ages use technology and to evaluate its impact. The responses are mixed — and telling.

Some reports have condemned the use of computers in schools. Others have endorsed Internet use in the classroom. Whether or not they are exposed to technology in the classroom, kids often have bedrooms that are media centers, according to a Knowledge Networks/SRI study. It reveals that nearly two-thirds of children have a television in their room, while 17 percent have their own computer and 35 percent have a video game system.

The use of this technology begins early. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 31 percent of children age three and under are already using computers. Sixteen percent use them several times a week, 21 percent can point and click with a mouse by themselves, and 11 percent can turn on the computer without assistance.

What’s more, a third of children — many as young as 11 years old — use blogs and social networking sites at least two or three times a week. Yet two-thirds of parents don’t even know what a blog is, according to a report by NCH Children’s Charities and Tesco Telecoms.

The report reveals an alarming gap in knowledge between parents and their children when it comes to technology, breeding concern that children may be at risk of exposure to sexual predation and other dangers.

Instilling Self-Control

Incessant exposure to “all day TV,” violent video games, instant messaging, and the always accessible cell phone interferes with the development of the psychological traits known to be essential to positive outcomes for children, according to Leah Klungness, Ph.D., psychologist in private practice and co-author of The Complete Single Mother. Self-control is one of these essential psychological traits.

“Research findings suggest that the ability to focus attention and delay gratification have both a hereditary and environmental component. Differences among children in their ability to focus attention and exercise control emerge before a child’s first birthday. No one is sure how much of the ability to exercise self control is hereditary or how much is learned,” Klungness told TechNewsWorld.

In other words, through experience, children can be taught to exercise self-control. On the other hand, such innate abilities can be “unlearned” by experiences that reduce a youngster’s capacity to exercise self-control. Constant media exposure is an experience that will reduce self-control in children, Klungness argued, because media is all about immediacy.

How Young Is Too Young?

Some child experts are asking what age is too young to introduce children to the immediacy of technology. Launched in May, BabyFirstTV rekindled the debate over age-appropriate technology and media.

While BabyFirstTV’s founders cite top child development experts’ endorsements of the interactive TV channel, which provides content for babies and toddlers, not all child development experts agree that babies should watch TV.

What does that mean for the 68 percent of children under age two that the Kaiser Family Foundation reports watch on-screen media every day?

“When used responsibly, television can be a powerful interactive medium that provides parents with unique opportunities to bond with their children. The key is the quality and interactive nature of the content, and this is what BabyFirstTV offers to parents,” said Dr. Edward McCabe, M.D., Ph.D, physician-in-chief, Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA and BabyFirstTV advisory board member.

Differing Medical Opinions

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics maintains that children under the age of two should not be exposed to television for two major reasons: First, the baby’s brain is still developing. Doctors do not understand what happens when that brain is exposed to too much television stimuli, explained AAP spokesperson Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg. Second, the AAP is concerned that television will get in the way of child-parent bonding rather than encourage it.

“What we know absolutely is that the most important thing that happens in the first couple of years of a child’s life is they form a deep connection with their parents,” Ginsburg told TechNewsWorld. “We know that connection is forged through active play, active interaction and reading. We know that kids who are read to grow to learn to love books, and that it is a stepping stone towards a lot of positive things that can happen in the future.”

Oh, the Irony!

Ironically, medical experts said parents with the highest educational goals and aspirations for their children and the resources to make choices to reach these goals are the ones who typically flood their children with every type of media from “educational” videos to the latest in computer technology.

In doing so, Klungness said these parents ignore common sense and practical experience and actually deprive their children of the very experiences that allow them to master the sort of self-control that leads to academic success.

“What kinds of experiences develop increased self-control?” Klungness asked rhetorically. “Activities which require patience — such as waiting for seedlings to sprout or working on a craft project which requires wait time between steps — are the types of activities accessible to all children with appropriate parental supervision.”

Paying Attention

Klungness summarized a point on which most medical experts can agree: Parents should supervise their children’s use of technology.

Premature exposure and overexposure to technology creates emotional numbness, confusion between fantasy and reality, and pent-up anxiety that leads to aggressive behavior in children, according to Stanford’s Mann.

“Too much technology exposure can lead to inattentiveness in the classroom setting for school-aged children. They may get diagnosed incorrectly with Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or even be erroneously labeled with bipolar disorder,” Mann stressed. “These kids do not show interest in healthy physical exercise, and [they] lose interest in sports.”

Mindfulness trainer Maya Talisman Frost has four kids — ages 15, 16, 18 and 20 — all of whom use technology on a regular basis to stay connected. Her take on technology is simple: Pay attention. Frost told TechNewsWorld that overworking, overspending, overeating, and overusing technology, among other things, are a direct result of not paying attention.

“The key to managing kids’ technology use is to establish clear ‘tech-free’ zones,” she explained. “This means recognizing times when the present moment is the priority and technology is given a secondary role. Kids need to learn that there are times when paying attention to those around you is of primary importance, no matter what type of urgent phone calls or instant messages might be coming their way.”

Practice What You Preach

Frost and Mann both stress the need for parents to practice what they preach. If mom and dad have a difficult time disconnecting from technology, then kids will not see the need to disconnect either, they said. Parents set the tone when it comes to limiting technology.

“Parents use cell phones on the way to dropoff or pickup times. They are absorbed in their own virtual world and pay no attention to their children’s departure and reunion at the end of the day,” Mann asserted. “Children learn from their parents as if these are perfectly normal behaviors, and they emulate them, too.”

Warning Signs Appear Along Road to Video Game Addiction

Part 3: Personal Tech Addiction Snares Teens, Adults

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