A little boy using a laptop

Technology and Your Child: Limiting Exposure

Do you remember getting kicked off the computer, television, or game console and being told to go outside and play? I sure do. And I sure hated it. But, looking back, was that really such a bad thing? As it turns out, our folks may have had it right all along. Children shouldn't spend all day with their video games.

Is exposure to technology such a bad thing?

As a child, you’d never hear me say that I understood my parents’ orders to put down the game or turn off the TV and head outside. But now I do. I’m glad I was forced to play outside and use my imagination. Instead of being passively entertained, I had to make my own fun. That itself can be a valuable skill to learn. Not that TV and video games will turn your brain to mush, but if that’s all you do, you can almost lose the need to use your imagination.

This frightens me because my nephew is addicted to apps. Like, seriously addicted. Playing games during car rides makes him sick, but he still plays. I was taking a trip with him when he started complaining about being nauseous. My sister, his mother, told him it was probably because he’d been playing his game too long. Ten minutes later, we were pulled over, letting my nephew throw up.

His game was making him sick, but that didn’t stop him from playing. I’m not saying that all children with access to apps are like this or will become like this--my nephew seems like an extreme case--but if apps were drugs, the kid would be a junkie. So it’s a possibility.

And that stinks. But I understand. I understand how awesome it must be to live as a child with a nearly infinite number of free games at your fingertips. I understand how easy it is to hand your child a tablet or smartphone to keep them busy, especially during long car rides. But what most of us don’t and can’t fully understand is just how the ubiquity of technology will affect children in the long run.

What are the pros and cons of tech exposure?

It’s true that your child will, at some point, need to learn how to use a smartphone. As things are, a person can’t survive professionally without one. Same goes for desktops and laptops: your children will need to be familiar and confident in using these machines, especially for academic purposes (virtual classrooms and computer integration are common in upper-level education). Modern life requires it. But it becomes an issue when that exposure becomes excessive.

What we do know is that the effects aren’t all positive or all negative. There seems to be a benefit to reasonable levels of exposure to technology (increased ability to make decisions, improved spatial-reasoning) but also a drawback to excessive exposure (anti-sociability, increased likelihood of acquiring attention deficit disorder). Basically, technology isn’t inherently good or bad--it’s how you use it that matters.

What do the experts think?

According to Marjorie J. Hogan, MD and co-author of Children, Adolescents, and the Media, “Studies show that exposure to screens at young ages can negatively impact language development and also raise concern about longer term impact on attention and other developmental skills.” But how is this so?

Jim Taylor, a Ph.D. and instructor of psychology at the University of San Francisco, explains how the evolution of technology and its place in media could potentially affect our attention spans, saying that “In generations past, for example, children directed considerable amounts of their time to reading, an activity that offered few distractions and required intense and sustained attention, imagination, and memory. The advent of television altered that attention by offering children visual stimuli, fragmented attention, and little need for imagination. Then the Internet was invented and children were thrust into a vastly different environment in which, because distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary, and memory is inhibited.”

What does this mean for parents?

What’s clear is that the drawbacks associated with new forms of technology only come about with excessive exposure.Your kid won’t develop ADD just because he uses a tablet for an hour a day. But it is a possibility if that exposure isn’t limited. Try setting boundaries--one to two hours a day should be more than plenty (unless homework requires more time to be spent on the computer). The rest of the day should be spent in more engaging ways. Even if it isn’t social--something like reading--it’s preferable to having your child play iPhone games all day.

It seems the formula my folks once employed on me still holds true today: Be involved and be wary. Make sure your child spends an adequate amount of time outside or socializing with friends. The most important lessons they can learn are from people--not from technology. Exposure to technology alone won’t ruin anyone. But unmonitored and unrestricted access can be damaging to development.