Kids these days. What are they like eh? Spending all their time sat in the dark playing games. They can’t even face playing an active sport in the great outdoors anymore, they’d rather lock themselves away and pretend to do it on their Xbox. No wonder they’re all obese. And that Facebook, don’t get me started on that. What was ever wrong with face to face conversation?
An echoing of the thought process of many parents and grandparents of today, who are left baffled by the daily routines of their children. Bikes are left to rust in the garage, Rubix Cubes tossed in the bin, and board games dismissed as boring. Technology is left with the brunt of the blame, as children want their hands on smartphones, games consoles and social network accounts at an ever younger age.
With rises in the digital lifestyle and child obesity, you have correlation, but do you have causation? Are we walking into the generation of the socially recluse? Does early adoption of tech have any impact, be it positive or negative, on children physically, educationally and/or socially?
What does the Evidence Say?
First, confirmation of what we already suspected. Tech is finding its way into the hands of children, and at an ever younger age. We were provided some stats from specialist child researchers CHILDWISE, confirming that some are interacting with tech before they can even tie their shoelaces. 29% of 0-4 year-olds were found to own some form of their own computer (be it a tablet, laptop or desktop), with a quarter given their own tablet before the age of 5. This level leaps up to 63% in 5-10 year olds, followed by 88% in 11-16 year-olds. Crucially, the majority of children were found to adopt their own computer at the tender age of 7.
Delving a little further, the figures from CHILDWISE present a similar picture for other areas of tech. TVs, often the butt of every “society is going down to pan” joke, are given to 50% of 5-10 year olds, with the majority adopted at the age of 11. One in three 5-10 year-olds also own a mobile phone, a number that leaps to 94% in the 11-16 bracket. At an adoption age of 9, identical to that of games consoles (which had similar figures to that of TV), children are often displaying a full repertoire of tech before they even hit secondary school.
So, children are using tech, and in great numbers. Time to ponder those wider questions posted above on the impact (if any) this has on younger users.
Given that the subject can bring about such strong opinions, researchers have flocked to drill down into the truth behind the impact of tech on children. As such, you can probably pinpoint any which studies you deem appropriate in order to flesh out your particular point of view. In the interests of fairness however, I will attempted to propose a balanced account of reality.
One of the most pertinent was undertaken a year ago by Oxford University, who uncovered a swath of positive effects for children who game on a daily basis. Children who game for an hour or less were found to be happier, more sociable and less hyperactive than those who didn’t game at all. As well as those psychological advantages, gaming can also improve a child’s problem solving, logical thinking and hand-eye coordination.
In fact, despite the common stereotypes that surround an often reclusive activity such as gaming, there is more than one study that supports the idea of gaming as a sociable pastime. Research done at the University of Texas found that multiplayer gaming led to much less aggression towards other people when compared to those who gamed alone. Similarly, gamers were found to act in a more positive, pro-social manner in social situations after they had undergone a round of cooperative gaming with other people.
Gaming clearly has some level of positive psychological impact on both children and adults alike. With the industry often under a barrage of criticism for its glorification of violence, and the assumed mental effects of that on young minds, research such as this could provide a powerful counter.
Sliding gaming to one side, the use of other areas of tech has brought with it new problems for children and parents to deal with. Possibly the most high profile is the rise of child obesity. The most recent figures suggest that different ages are moving at different speeds in terms of child obesity rates. Whilst 6-10 year olds appear to be flat lining (hovering at around 30% for the last decade), 11-15 year olds are still on the rise. In 2013, that rate stood at 37%, whilst the rate for 2-5 year olds was around 24%.
Ultimately however, the amount of obese people in the UK has trebled over the last 25 years. Does the evidence blame technology for this, and what other factors are in play?
Again, there is no shortage of research with which to draw upon. Much of it seems to draw the same conclusions- there is a direct link between screen time and child obesity levels.
TV is given the brunt of the blame, as such a sedentary activity is thought to lead to unhealthy eating habits. TV viewing acts a distraction for children, removing the thought process behind eating a proper meal. To compensate, they reach for snacks that they continually eat during their extended screen time. Adding to the temptation for the impressionable mind of a child, TV screens are plastered with ads promoting foods with high level of fat, salt and sugar. Brainwashing the minds of those who are most susceptible to influences on the TV, children are often left reaching for crisps instead of an apple during their favourite TV shows.
Ofcom attempted to bring in some legislation to reduce the level of exposure children had to these foods via advertising, but the results have been questioned. Indeed media industries in general are often left with the majority of blame when searching for the cause of child obesity.
Physically then, the picture is rather grim for stationary activities such as using technology like TVs and PCs. The picture doesn’t get much rosier when you consider the negative impact the internet is bringing to young people’s lives. Platforms such as Facebook have allowed playground bullies to take their abuse online, and a number of high profile cases have led to children harming themselves and even committing suicide.
Cyberbullying has developed into an epidemic amongst young people. In the 2013 Cyberbullying report, 70% of young people were reported to have been victims of cyberbullying at some stage during their lives. 20% of those were said have experienced “extreme” levels, and Facebook was twice as likely to be used as a platform for online abuse amongst young people than any other social network. Currently, there is no concrete legislation protecting young people from Cyberbullying specifically (although they often fall under harassment laws), and calls for that to change are getting louder.
A couple of hefty blows for those championing the introduction of technology into young people’s lives. But the implementation of more technology in education is often proven to lead to higher levels of academic success. Certainly, that is what the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Stanford Centre for Opportunity Policy in Education found. The report ultimately found that technology leads to higher engagement and eventually higher achievement, particularly among students who are struggling.
The potential educational benefits are obvious when applied correctly to technology, but it’s the use at home that can outweigh the positives done at school. A very recent study from Cambridge University suggests that an extra hour of screen time for children in Year 10 is directly linked to poorer grades at GCSE level. For every extra hour of screen time (and thus an hour less doing homework or reading), an equivalent drop of two whole grades occurred.
When dealing with complicated and multi-faceted scenarios such as this, the best approach is always evidence based. Looking at what the evidence says, parents face a series of real challenges when tackling the pressures of modern technology. Pitfalls do exist, and the research has outlined them in full. Thankfully, there is also no shortage of advice for parents on how to embrace technology, and turn it into a positive.
Check back in a few days for our follow up on using technology during a child’s upbringing.