Technology and Play: Supporting A Child’s Growth and Development
“Computers are magnificent tools for the realization of our dreams, but no machine can replace the human spark of spirit, compassion, love, and understanding.”
Let’s face it, kids love screens! It’s hard to compete with the realities of life when a child can delve into a fantasy world with one touch, drag or swipe of their tiny fingers. Who can blame them? Most of us take advantage of technology every day—answering emails on our smartphones, connecting with our friends on Facebook.
Children have always been attracted to the adult world—and today’s children are no exception. Imagine what it’s like to be a child today, growing up around adults who never leave home without their smartphone or iPad. With the average adult spending five hours at the computer and a couple hours on a smartphone a day, children are modeling our behavior.
According to Jennifer Prout, mother and associate director of Small Business Sales for Verizon Wireless, “Today’s children are learning how to use technology as fast as they’re learning how to read or add numbers, sometimes faster. “
And children are using technology for play, often with high dollar costs attached. The Federal Trade Commission reported in 2012 that there were over 8,000 Apple apps with kids in the title. According to the Joan Ganz Conney Center, an independent research center focusing on educating children in a media landscape, 72 percent of the best-selling apps in the education section of iTunes store are marketed to pre-school to elementary-aged children.
With the growing market of educational apps, TV programs, DVDs, and video games for kids, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for parents to keep up with the technology marketed toward young children, not to mention the cost associated with many of them.
Parents have observed how technology can be used to make learning more fun, build fine motor skills and improve hand/eye coordination in children. But like most positive things in life, there is a flip side, and when technology is used too early in a child’s life or too often, there can be negative consequences for children.
Elyse Maxwell, an account executive with Jones PR said, “Too much game or screen time can hamper [children’s] ability to explore other interests or socialize with friends. Like everything, technology should be experienced in moderation.”
The latest research on children’s use of technology has found that just two hours of screen time a day can result in decreased physical activity, eye-strain and attention problems in children. Furthermore, the more time kids are plugged into the screen, the less time they spend interacting with their parents and siblings and engaging in creative play, all of which are part of healthy child development.
While researchers and child development experts are not expecting, or even asking, parents to shield their children from all screens, experts like brain researcher Dr. Dimitri Christakis warn the more time young kids spend playing video games, on the computer or watching TV, the less opportunities they have to engage in activities that contribute to tissue growth in the brain. Because young children need brain-growth activities, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screen time for children age 2 and younger. Instead, the AAP encourages parents to establish screen-free zones in the home, turn off the TV during dinner, and make sure children have lots of time to engage in free and creative play.
Neuroscientists have discovered that the frequent use of technology by young children wires their brains differently than what has been found in previous generations. Although researchers cannot prove whether this difference in brain development will have positive or negative consequences for children, new research does show that heavy use of technology by children changes the way they develop and relate.
Even when parents limit the time their children are exposed to technology, they are surprised at how quickly their children can become technology savvy. In our goal- oriented, fast-paced society, it is becoming more of a priority for many parents to teach even very young children technological skills than it is for parents to teach children fundamental life skills. A 2010 survey of over 2,000 mothers found that their children between 2 and 5 years old knew how to play a computer game long before they could perform basic life skills such as riding a bike or tying their shoelaces.
Many parents hand their children a smartphone or tablet while waiting in the doctor’s office or riding in the car. Someone said, “Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach that person to use the Internet and they won’t bother you for weeks,” and it is true. What parent hasn’t seen how a smartphone can instantly silence a tantrum?
One problem many concerned parents, researchers and child advocates see with parents handing their bored, irritated or angry child a gaming device for entertainment is that each time children are given a screen to pacify their feelings, they miss out on an opportunity to learn how to cope with boredom, deal with irritation and or entertain themselves.
Some experts say it is too soon to know the long-term effects of technology on children, while others like Dr. A. Sigman, child health expert and psychologist, say the evidence is already clear. According to Dr. Sigman, a growing body of scientific research has continued to find a positive link between the frequent use of technology in kids and obesity, language delays, sleep problems, attention difficulties, social difficulties, addiction type behaviors, decreased creativity and increased aggression. Specifically, Dr. Sigman’s research has shown how dopamine, the reward center of the brain and key component in addiction, increases rapidly when children play computer games—especially when the child is first exposed to the game.
According to Dr. Sigman’s research, prolonged screen time not only increases dopamine production in the brain but also contributes to poor physical health in children by increasing their markers for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
In addition to poor physical health, other researchers have found that young children’s frequent use of technology can contribute to speech and language delays—especially when children’s use of technology takes the place of play and interactions with parents and siblings.
Speech pathologist Nicole Streich, M.S., CCC/SLP director of speech/language services at the Scholl Center for Communication Disorders in Tulsa, has witnessed how young children’s frequent use of technology has contributed to speech and language delays.
Streich said, “I have definitely noticed a change in children’s speech, communication, and language abilities in the 14 years I’ve been a speech pathologist.” According to Streich, it’s not uncommon for a preschool teacher or pediatrician to refer children between the ages of 2 and 4 years to speech therapy because they are not talking. She said that parents begin to notice that their children between the ages 2 and 4 are not meeting developmental milestones—especially when it comes to speech and language.
“What has changed is that now we see kids that are not only not talking,” Streich said, “but lack some of the basic building blocks of communication—eye contact, joint attention, turn taking. We often have parents accompany their child to the clinic for a speech evaluation and the battle to take away the hand-held electronic device of choice ensues as we invite the child back from the waiting room!”
Although using technology in the waiting room from time-to-time is not going to result in speech and language delays in children, the frequent use of technology can equal less parent/child interaction. A research study in Pediatrics found that every hour of television a child younger than 2 years old watches alone equals to 52 minutes less time that child spent interacting with a sibling or parent. Less parent/ child interaction means children have fewer opportunities to learn what Streich calls “the dance of conversation.”
She said, “To be effective communicators, [children] must learn about taking turns, staying on topic and asking questions to gain information.”
Technology is a one-sided experience that does not give children the chance to learn the subtleties of human interaction such as non-verbal cues, voice tone or inflection and body language.
Decades of research supports that young children learn to socialize through human interaction. Children with poor socialization skills are more likely to be bullied, rejected by their peers and be aggressive toward others. Children first learn socialization skills from the interactions they have with their parents or caregivers. “When a parent gazes into their infant’s eyes and lovingly imitates each sound and coo the infant makes, the infant responds with a sound that progresses into a smile,” Streich said. “The parent responds to the infant’s smile with a smile back and the dance of conversation continues.”
One reason why parents turn to technology to calm or entertain their young children may be because many parents have forgotten how to play.
“I think a lot of adults leave their childhoods behind and ‘forget’ how to play,” Steich said. “We [parents] are somehow expected to relearn this skill when we have our own children. Many of us simply don’t remember how to be fully present with our child in a way that is fun and playful.”
Streich’s observation was supported in a study of over 2,000 UK parents where one in seven parents reported being anxious when their child asked them to play because they reported they did not know what to do.
Streich said play is really just engaging and interacting with your child—free from distractions. When parents take time to focus on their child, Streich said, “Play can be whatever we want it to be.”
A new toy fire truck with a button that you push to make a sound like a fire truck can have many other uses. For instance, Streich said, “Parents can talk with their child about the parts of the truck, recall the fire truck you drove by on the way to school, find a book that has pictures of fire trucks, show the child how the fire truck can go fast, slow, up, down etc.” But play doesn’t have to be goal-oriented either. The fire truck can be transformed into a bird, plane, or dinosaur—if that is where the child’s imagination takes him or her.
Streich explained that one of her goals as a speech pathologist is to encourage parents to think of play as a way to interact and communicate with their child. “Sometimes we get stuck not knowing what to do—when all our kids want is our undivided attention.”
Play is the child’s most effective and meaningful learning tool. Once we remember how play has a proven track record for promoting growth and development in our children, then we can relax knowing the day-to-day interactions we share with them are more important in their growth and development than buying them the latest technological toy, gadget or educational software.
Current Statistics on Screen Time in America
• The average child spends almost eight hours looking at screens every day.
• Negative effects on physical health related to screen time start after two hours of sitting still in front of a screen.
• According to the American Academy of Pediatrics there are no known positive effects of media use in children younger than 2 years and increasing evidence of potential negative effects.
• Seventy-two percent of iTunes best selling educational apps are marketed to preschoolers and elementary age children.
• Researchers tracking creativity in children have reported a significant drop in creativity among kindergarten through sixth grade children.
• Twenty-nine percent of infants under 1 year old watch TV and videos for an average of 90 minutes a day.
• Sixty-one percent of infants over 2 years are exposed to TV each day and exposed infants spend an average of 1 hour and 20 minutes in front of the screen.
• Preschoolers who watch 20 minutes of a fast-paced cartoon experience difficulty performing executive functions such as staying focused, delaying gratification, and problem solving.
• About one-quarter of children at age 3 go online each day.
• About half of children at age 5 go online each day.
• Television viewing at a young age is associated with more behavior problems, unless it is stopped by age 6.
• Children aged 5 to 9 average about 28 minutes online each day.
• Children ages 2 to 5 watch more TV than children age 6 to 11.
• Approximately 20 percent of 4 and 5-year-olds use handheld videogames.
• School age children pack almost 8 hours of media exposure into 5 hours of time by media multitasking (simultaneously watching TV, completing homework on the computer, and listening to music).
• Children age 2 to 5 years watch more than 3.5 hours of TV (videos, movies, programs) a day.
• Thirty percent of 6 year olds have a TV set in their room.
• Twenty percent of children aged 6 to 11 years own cell phones.
• Children who spend less time watching TV in their early years do better in school, have healthier diets, and are more physically active.
— Source: American Academy of Pediatrics