Even writing the title of this article gave me a moment to pause and think. Do I write the word children first or the word technology first? After a long career in education it’s obvious what my choice would be – always children first.
In today’s world, technology and media are important and an ever growing presence. We all feel lost when we don’t have access to the internet or a Wi-Fi connection. It wasn’t so long ago that these things didn’t matter. They didn’t affect our lives in any way. Now we are totally reliant on them and our ways or communicating have expanded on one level and changed or regressed on another level. Think about the couples you see out for a meal in a restaurant. They are both on their cell phones communicating with someone else and not communicating with each other. I am becoming more and more aware of children and their interactions with media following the example of their parents. Children are seen in strollers with an iPad on their lap, they are kept quiet in restaurants with one form of technology or another, and they sit at home with some form of media in front of them. There’s very little interaction from either parents or siblings in many of these situations.
The questions I often ask myself, deal with how children are affected by technology. There are pros and cons to most decisions we make as educators or parents. After hearing discussions and reading reports supporting both sides of the spectrum it’s now time consider everything I’ve learned.
Many people think media has only a positive effect. There are so many wonderful apps and interactive games or educational websites where children can learn a variety of skills or gain knowledge about. A world of wonder is awaiting those who explore the web or successfully download an application that teaches and is fun at the same time. This is all true. Children can be kept entertained at any time of the day or night and it eases the stress of being a full time and attentive parent. From a very early age children realize that Mom or Dad’s phone is entertainment, the TV becomes a replacement baby sitter, and the iPad is instant visual stimulation. In an age of instant gratification it takes only a second or two to distract a crying child, keep a child occupied while Mom or Dad does something else, and keep a child technologically current in an ever competitive parenting lifestyle. I recently read a comment by a father proudly stating that his baby daughter was trying to swipe a magazine picture as if it were on an iPhone. It wouldn’t work of course. It’s a funny comment in some ways but was it also read like a boast that his daughter knew how to use a piece of modern technology. How often we hear parents talk of the ability of their child to maneuver their way through the operating system of an iPhone or iPad. The feeling is that we don’t want our children to “fall behind” or “miss out”. We have to keep our children competitive in today’s world.
Another positive effect of technology is the ability for it to enhance a school’s curriculum in certain areas. For example if the children are learning about winter in other parts of the world it would be beneficial to watch a short video of children playing in snow. Maple Bear has a policy on technology that states it has great value as an educational tool and may be used in the classrooms as a support to regular programming as long as the main focus remains on activity based learning. Children need to be active when they’re learning new skills and concepts. To place children in front of a screen for entertainment or behaviour control purposes is not productive and ultimately will not provide for the right development of enhanced thinking and communication skills. In Canada there is now a strong movement towards Media Education where students are taught how to develop skills to evaluate everything they see and hear in Media. Media Education is the process through which individuals become media literate – able to critically understand the nature, techniques and impact of media messages and productions. This type of education is extremely valuable and should be part of our everyday discussions with children.
There are probably other positive effects and there are always two sides to every argument. My opinion is that the negatives outweigh the positives in this particular case. The American Academy of Pediatrics states television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens. I agree with this stand, as technology and thereby media is too often used as a pacifier or entertainer when it is the parent’s responsibility to educate, socialize and nurture their children. These developments can’t be left to the dictates of a screen. Communication is a highly valued skill and it is imperative that children develop effective communication skills. How can these skills evolve if too much screen time is allowed?
Today we often hear stories of children’s ability to remain focused on media such as video games and yet when that stimulus is removed from them, their ability to remain focused and attentive is greatly diminished. Media seems to be changing the way children’s brains operate. Reading requires focus and imagination but the quick visual stimuli, fragmented attention and little need for imagination in so many media environments has created the situation where distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary and memory is inhibited. All children will be exposed to technology no matter what approach the school or parents take and we need to be careful to not judge parents for how they choose to allow the use of technology in their home but as educators we need to be very mindful of its use.
Another interesting commentary to me is from Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England, USA. Angela writes about the prevalence of children being diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and the number of prescriptions being written for children to attempt to control their inability to be attentive in school. Angela suggests that children’s bodies need to move and the fact that they are not moving enough – climbing trees, rolling down hills, playing sports has caused them to have very poor core strength and balance. They have an underdeveloped vestibular (balance) system and they need to develop a stronger sensory system. Their bodies desperately need to move and their brain causes them to fidget and in turn they are labelled inattentive. She suggests that children need hours of outdoor play in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.
Ultimately as parents and educators we need to do what is best for our children. Yes, we need to have children use technology in a way that is meaningful and insightful but there needs to be very careful scrutiny on what it being viewed, how it affects children and what is being learned. We need to decide how technology is going to be used in our homes and set manageable limits. We also need to ensure that children are provided with opportunities to exercise and play. Finally we need to ensure that children have the right skill sets to be successful in life. The key is a balance and parents creating the right environment for their children.
By: Janet Andrews