Modern Childhood > Info & links > Screen Saturation And Child Development

In the last twenty or so years, the lifestyle of families in the developed world has changed beyond recognition. Back in the early-1990s, TV was limited to four home-grown channels, few families owned a computer, and the phone was tethered by a wire to the wall. Mum was usually at home, while children played games outside.

Two decades later, most families have twenty-four hour multi-channel TV coverage, access to the whole world via the web and internet, and mobile phones that also take photos, videos and can be used for texting, gaming and even social networking. Mum’s more likely to be at work, so children are probably indoors, watching TV or chatting on MSN or Bebo. Play now happens indoors on a Playstation, games on a Gameboy, and most children have a wide array of screen-based entertainment in their bedrooms.

You don’t have to be a Luddite, desperate to abandon technological advances and go back in time to some mythical golden age, to be worried about the effects of too much technology on young children’s development.

As the eminent neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has said, a screen-based lifestyle provides ‘a gratifying, easy-sensation ‘yuk and wow’ environment, which doesn’t require a young mind to work….We cannot park our children in front of the TV and expect them to develop a long attention span.’

Screens and brains

The reason I started researching ‘toxic childhood syndrome’ a decade ago was my concern that changes in our lifestyles might be behind the massive increases in developmental conditions.

ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia and autism are called ‘developmental disorders’ because children who seem fine when they’re born don’t develop as expected. There’s a physical explanation for all these conditions – glitches in children’s brain structure or the chemical balance of the brain – and often they’re hereditary. But most scientists believe environmental influences can add to the problem (in some children they might even create it). There’s research beginning to come through suggesting that an excessively screen-based culture could play a part, particularly in the first few years when neural pathways are forming in the brain.

Attention deficit disorder
One research study looked at how watching TV affected children under the age of two. For every hour of TV they watched per day, there was a 9% increase in attention deficit by the time the child was seven. The researchers thought that rapid changes of image on TV could make an immature brain go into overdrive – so when the child looks away from the screen, real life is boring.

Dyslexia
Dyslexia is mainly caused by problems in processing the individual sounds of language (the c-a-t of cat). Children learn to process these sounds in the first year or so of life, so they need to plenty of real-life ‘conversations’ with adults to provide the language data. If TV, email and so on distract adults’ attention, there are fewer opportunities for these conversations. And although children – even babies – seem happy to be plugged into an electronic babysitter, it isn’t exposing them to the interactive real-life language they need. And, of course, as children grow older, the availability of TV means they’re less keen to practise reading.

Autism (particularly Asperger’s syndrome)
Children with a predisposition to autism find social contact difficult. They are thus often drawn to screen-based activity – and since children with such a predisposition are difficult to engage with, their carers may find the electronic babysitter provides welcome relief. A US study recently found a strong link between autism and the number of hours spent watching TV by children under three. At the same time UK researchers were discovering that six- to eight-year-olds now prefer to look at a blank screen rather than a human face...

See also Articles: The dangers of screen-gazing and Dancing with the devil

Screens and marketing

Almost all the screen-based entertainment with which children now fill so much of their time is financed by marketing – ads, internet pop-ups, product placement on websites and social networks, and so on. Films and TV programmes almost always have product tie-ins, so even a public service broadcaster like the BBC has stuff to sell to children. From the moment a baby is born, there’s a vast army of marketers and media manipulators who are working hard to make him or her in to a little consumer.

See Info and links: The commercialisation of childhood.
Articles: Why pink makes me see red and Child exploitation 21st century style.

Real play versus junk play

British children are estimated to spend between five and six hours a day on screen-based entertainment. During this time they’re not engaging in the outdoor, loosely-supervised play that has been children’s birthright for millennia. So it’s not just too much screen-gazing that poses a danger to overall development, but the substitution of this junk play for real play with real people in the real world.

See Info and links: Out to play
Articles: Boys need to be boys, for all our sakes

TV and children’s behaviour

Children imitate what they see, and since many of them spend much of their time watching angry, violent or manipulative behaviour on TV, DVD and computer games, we can’t be surprised if they pick up these behaviour patterns. They also imitate what they hear, which may well include the suggestive, sexual or ‘bad’ language on popular music stations and downloads.

Since the consumer culture is so dependent on pester power, children may also assume that their parents are there to indulge them and that boundaries are there to break. As an eminent New York psychologist put it: 'It's part of the official advertising world view that your parents are creeps, teachers are weirdos and idiots, authority figures are laughable, nobody can really understand kids except the corporate sponsor'.

See Articles: Screen culture and bad behaviour.

Old versus new literacy

There is copious evidence from neuroscience that learning to read and write hugely increases the human beings’ intellectual potential – it ‘changes the functional architecture of the brain’ in ways that make us more rational, logical and civilised. While digital technology extends our brain-power in many other beneficial ways, there’s growing concern that introducing children to digital learning too early may make it more difficult for them to develop ‘old-fashioned’ literacy skills.

See Info and links: Screens versus Books

For more information on this topic, see the work of Dr Aric Sigman.
Of course, some commentators, such as Ben Goldacre, claim that these concerns are unwarranted. This is him debating the issue on Newsnight with Aric Sigman.

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