Too much tech time is giving kids digital dementia, experts warn

When it comes to technology parents are bombarded with conflicting guidelines and advice. We are told too much screen time will hinder our child’s development yet buying them an iPad for school is an essential part of their learning in this digital age.

We are in awe of the feats our little ones achieve with a device in their hands before they can even colour within the lines holding a crayon. But we feel the stares of disapproval when we hand our little ones a screen instead of a more appropriate (in the eyes of public opinion) educational toy.

Technology is an evolving beast and the impact it will have on children today may not be realised until they are grown. The Daily Telegraph reports a growing number of students may be suffering from digital dementia and short attention spans as they rely more and more on devices instead of developing their memory muscle. According to the report, children are even having trouble remembering times tables and other basic maths skills.

Following reports a Brisbane school tried to force parents to buy iPads for their kindergarten students, Babyology asked an expert about whether or not technology is good for our children.

Dr Kristy Goodwin is a children’s technology and development expert and a mum. She tells Babyology technology is a wonderful educational tool if used to “create rather than consume” but educators need more professional support.

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What impact, good or bad, does technology have in schools?

Dr Goodwin says technology can have great educational value if the use is intentional and there is value added.

“If you’re making the decision to use an iPad, it can’t just be a digital replica,” she says.

“If it’s being used as a digital worksheet or a digital puzzle and it’s not adding value or changing or enhancing the way kids use it then don’t use it.

“Unfortunately a lot of schools aren’t providing teachers with the professional development they need to know how to use this new tool and so it’s not being used in the classrooms, particularly in the younger grades, in the most effective ways.”

What is screen time and how do parents manage it?

Australian guidelines recommend:

  • Children under two should have no screen time
  • Children aged two to five should have no more than an hour a day
  • Children aged five to 18 should have no more than two hours

But Dr Goodwin says using time to measure children’s use of technology is too narrow a focus in this screen saturated world.

“A lot of kids are exceeding these recommended screen time limits before they’ve hit morning tea bell at school, let alone the additional screen time they have before and after school as well,” Dr Goodwin says.

She says we need to look at why, how and when our children are using technological devices.

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What questions should we ask our child’s teachers/school?

As well as looking at a school’s aesthetics, getting to know the teachers and assessing the canteen’s healthy food range, parents should find out how devices such as iPads are used in class.

Why are they using it? Is it adding value to the lesson? Is it affording students to learn in new ways? Are they creating or are they just consuming content? Is the activity aligned to their developmental needs? For example, Dr Goodwin says using the iPad to create digital books, animations or to code are much more active and engaging activities then just watching Youtube clips or playing a passive game, where they simply tap at the screen and touch the right answer.

When are they using it? “We know screen use before sleep or nap time or before school can actually be really detrimental, especially for young kids, if it’s not used at the right time,” Dr Goodwin says.

How are they using it? Are they using devices in ways that will support their visual development, their eyesight, their vision, their hearing and their posture.

What are healthy digital habits?

Dr Goodwin says the physical way in which technology is used is often completely overlooked. Health factors such as posture, vision and hearing all need to be considered.

“It is a really huge problem. Schools are rolling out this technology, families are being told to provide their own devices and teachers are getting a little bit of professional development on how to use them as an educational tool, but absolutely nothing is done on the digital health side,” she says.

“It’s really important for young children because obviously their brains and bodies are undergoing a rapid period of development.”

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Why not just stick to pencil and paper in schools?

Technology is great at engaging and motivating children to learn, Dr Goodwin says.

“I’ve been in preschools where we’ve had three-year-old children who have created multi-media books and multi-media flash cards with videos and photos and their voice recordings in them. They’d never be able to create that with a piece of paper and some crayons because their fine motor skills and language skills don’t match that,” she says.

“That’s where it has got really rich potential, but again that requires a significant amount of professional development from the educators and requires them to be using it in innovative different ways than what they’re maybe used to.”

What about the social and financial cost?

Dr Goodwin says while early studies have found too much time online can lead to social issues with children, at this stage “we don’t yet know long term consequences”.

She says social equity issues are a big concern and schools need to be sensitive when applying policies requiring parents provide an iPad for their child to use at school so no child is left behind.

“Schools definitely need to address this and ensure that equity is something they are considering before they apply these policies,” Dr Goodwin says.

“It can be a huge imposition. Many parents had a predominantly analog childhood but are expected to raise kids having a digitalised childhood and we are given so little advice and guidance. You have some who question, ‘why should my five-year-old take an $800 device to school’.

“Schools need to provide information to alleviate those concerns.”

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