Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Too much too young?

Are children being over-stimulated by the increasingly sophisticated media they use every day? That is a question raised in an article in Education News, Technology Could Lead to Overstimulation in Kids. We all spend an increasing amount of our time gazing at screens for information, entertainment, learning, communication and work and the content and delivery is becoming ever more compelling and immersive. If it's not mobiles or iPads it's laptops or even good old-fashioned television screens. It's hard to resist and when kids see how important screens are to their parents they obviously want to be part of that and once they've started it's almost impossible to stop.

”These devices have an almost obsessive pull towards them,” says Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us. ”How can you expect the world to compete with something like an iPad3 with a high-definition screen, clear video and lots of interactivity? How can anything compete with that? There’s certainly no toy that can."

A blog post by Kate Anderson in Harvard Business Review, What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life, mentions a survey carried out at Disney World in Florida. They hired some cultural anthropologists to study what most captured the attention of young children in the park. Was it the colourful attractions, the food, the sounds or the exciting rides? None of that captured the children's attention more than the main attraction - their parents' mobiles. Children see that even if their parents give them plenty of attention and encouragement they couldn't resist checking their mobiles every so often and the kids of course wanted to be part of that.

It's tempting therefore to join in the chorus of how technology is damaging our children's brains and propose strict rationing of screen time. However we've been discussing that since the invention of television and have not succeeded so this is no new problem. At the same time we often have double standards when it comes to "good" or "bad" media consumption. A child who sits alone silently reading a book all day is often admired whereas another who spends the day engaged in online gaming (including extensive team-work skills, interaction and strategic planning) is criticised for being a slave to the screen. Screen time can be highly creative, thoughtful, communicative, entertaining and also refreshingly mindless as well. Activities like reading, writing, drawing and designing are still there but have moved to the screen. Children are still involved in a wide range of activities but mostly screen-based and this naturally awakens our concern.

There are certainly risks in all this. In-depth contemplative reading is an essential skill that we risk losing unless it is encouraged more in school and at home. It demands shutting down distractions, digital or otherwise. Silent undistracted time for reflection is another increasingly rare commodity as is time to be quite simply bored and have to find something to do. Children need these offline experiences too and we parents need to find ways of preserving these oases in their lives. But as the Disney World example shows so well it means that we adults have to be able to switch off too and lead by example. Variety is the spice of life.

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