A mother pushes her toddler around in a cart through the supermarket. After a while of perusing the aisles for orange juice, laundry detergent and other bland household items, the child naturally starts to feel agitated. With the unrest comes flailing arms and high-pitched screams, causing discomfort for other shoppers as well as the mother, who has a limited amount of time to complete her errands. In an effort to rectify the issue, she pulls her smartphone out, looks up a YouTube video and hands it to the toddler. Instantly, the child goes quiet, as she is now absorbed by the vivid colors and cheerful songs emanating from the phone screen.
Moments like these happen often in today’s technology-consumed world. But while handing a child a digital device may seem like a quick method to preventing a tantrum or even an innovative way to teach a new subject, such early exposure to electronics can have harmful consequences. An article on thriveglobal.com listed the negative effects of technology on children as an inability to focus and think critically, low self-esteem and difficulty developing emotions, as well as having trouble reading social cues and building relationships. Nevertheless, more and more parents are introducing electronics to their young children. A 2015 survey by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association found that 59 percent of parents said their kids, ages eight and under, use digital tablets, 52 percent of their children use smartphones, and 52 percent play video games.
Kristine Smith, a coordinator for Parents As Teachers, an organization that instructs parents on how to provide their children with a healthy early development, sees the prevalence of electronics in young kids’ lives on a regular basis.
“It has become increasingly common to observe very young children struggle to put away personal devices and participate in social activities, but it is more than just that,” Smith said. “As parents, we also have more trouble staying off our own devices in order to be more fully present for our children and our families. When I was a child, we only needed to turn off the TV. Today’s families have multiple enticing gadgets that are competing for attention. It can be really tough.”
One common worry associated with excessive screen time at an early age, Smith explained, is missing out on playing, reading, conversing and other social interactions. To juveniles under age two, playing is especially vital to learning about real life interactions. When teaching parents, Smith follows the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends no electronics for children below the age of one. Between ages two and five, children should only be allowed one hour or less of screen time. Senior Donia Shawn is all too familiar with how difficult it can be to tear kids away from devices, as she has an 11-year-old brother.
“I think he was five when he started [using electronics]. He played a lot of soccer games and just like random games,” Shawn said. “He would get moody and cry [if someone took the iPad away], but then he knew the system that you can’t be on the iPad 24/7. He had a certain amount of time he could be on the iPad.”
Junior Grace Davis had a similar experience, leading her to believe that too much exposure to the virtual world takes away from an authentic childhood. Once children become addicted to digital devices, Davis said, they compromise their social development.
“There were these little girls I babysat recently who were obsessed with their iPads,” Davis said. “It was really hard to take them away from them. They were uninterested in anything other than what was on the screen.”
Despite all the negative effects technology can have on children, some forms are more beneficial than others. The DevTech Research Group at Tufts University studies how different types of electronic devices affect children’s development and aims to find ways that children can utilize said devices to express themselves creatively, learn about concepts like engineering and help each other. One such tool is the KIBO Robotics Kit, which lets kids build their own robots out of sensors, wheels, wooden blocks and other materials. Amanda Strawhacker, a doctoral student with the DevTech Research Group, compared technology to a tool. Like any tool, Strawhacker explained, the right one is required for the right job. In other words, electronic toys can be helpful as long as they allow kids to be creative, social and open-minded, not restricted in what they can or cannot do.
“All technology is not created equal, so the effects of each technology depend on the tech itself. In our research, we’ve found that children can have playful, healthy and positive learning outcomes when they use developmentally appropriate technology,” Strawhacker said. “Some examples are tools designed by our lab, such as our KIBO Robotics Kit and ScratchJr programming environment. These are designed for children to lead their own play activities. However, there are many tools out there that are more restrictive and less playful, and too many of those can limit children’s social engagement and creativity.”
One of the most important parts of engaging with technology is not shutting out social interaction. DevTech’s research defines meaningful technology use as a limited period of time during which parents and children engage with the electronic device together. For example, 30 minutes of computer time where a parent and child make a digital birthday card is preferable to 10 minutes of the child playing a video game alone. For Shawn, the isolation most electronics lead to is the biggest threat to healthy child development.
“I don’t like that [kids are] exposed to technology much younger because everyone is just on their phones, and I don’t think they should have a phone before seventh grade,” Shawn said. “They’re just glued to their phones and don’t focus on important things like school, reading or being active.”