Are Digital Devices the Enemy? How Interactive Screen Time is Changing the Way Children Learn

Is an increase in screen-time helping or hurting the way young children learn in our classrooms?

by Crystal McCausland

Technology is changing classrooms and the children in it. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that it has a positive effect on adolescent learning and development, but could there be a downside to it all? Teachers and parents want to help children develop skills to be successful citizens in the 21st century, so they’ve embraced the use of mobile devices, tablets, and computer-based learning as part of their everyday lives. But could the increased exposure to interactive screen time at a young age have a negative impact on a child’s ability to learn when they start school?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, an increase in interactive screen time (use of smartphones, tablets, video games, and television) is replacing real-life interactions such as reading, playing games, and imaginative play resulting in a wiring of the brain that is different than previous generations. At an early age, children should be experiencing the world through their senses which in turn, builds their brains. More screen time means less time spent engaging in proper developmental activities, but many parents don’t see this side. Parents are being misled by some apps and programs for children marketed as “educational” (without evidence of this claim) so some parents may feel comfortable with this increase in screen time when it could be doing more harm than good (Radesky et al., 2015 ). The following are a few examples of how interactive screen time could be detrimental to early childhood learning.

Decreases Self-Regulation

The ability to self-regulate is an important skill for children to develop. Children with this skill are less impulsive, hyperactive, can persevere through learning challenges, set goals for themselves, and are more likely to retain information taught in class. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, technology has the potential to stunt the development of important tools for self-regulation. These days, children are often given digital devices to calm them down or distract them when they are bored. iPads distract children in waiting rooms, at the dinner table, and in the back seats of vehicles. If children are relying on technology to entertain their minds during times when they should be learning skills of self-regulation, they may not be able to develop their own internal mechanisms for this (Radesky et al., 2015). Research confirms that children who watch TV or play video games for more than two hours a day will likely exhibit behaviours that show a lack of self-regulation (Degaetano).

Attention and Focus Issues

The ability to focus is the secret element to ensuring success in learning. The more a child can concentrate, the better foundation they’ll have for all aspects of their growth. According to Cris Rowan, excessive screen time is causing the break-down of attention in young children. Children are entering school hard-wired for high-speed, and struggling with the focussing skills necessary for learning (Rowan, 2009). A growing suspicion among brain researchers is that excessive screen time may affect the development of connections in the brain that help with focus and attention and promotes the development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention (DeGaetano). When young children are over-stimulated by what they see on their screens, it can later impact their ability to maintain attention and focus while at school.

How to Help

Set boundaries.

Technology in the early years should be used in moderation. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit screen time for children of all ages to 2 hours a day and set “screen-free zones,” including bedrooms. Children under the age of 12 need more time “doing” than “viewing.” More concrete, self-directed activities provide opportunities for the attention span to develop (DeGaetano).

Replace screen time with focused offline time.

Children who live in households with heavy media use spend less time being read to or looking at books. Reading is essential for the development of young minds because it encourages the brain to be focused and imaginative. When reading, there are little distractions, and there must be sustained attention, and memory (Taylor, 2012). Instead of giving a child an iPad as a mindless distraction for boredom, replace interactive screen time with a book. Other activities that help to promote attention and self-regulation are concrete experiences such as playing a sport, going outdoors, engaging in a discussion, doing a puzzle, building something and playing a board game.

Don’t be afraid of boredom.

You don’t have to fill a child’s every minute. Downtime is a necessary part of developing intrinsic motivation, along with an understanding of one’s own creative process. The ability to concentrate is strengthened when young children are left alone to develop ingenuity and inventiveness (DeGaetano). Being left to your own devices to find something to do when you’re bored develops self-regulation skills. Resources for Early Learning can provide parents with ideas for developmentally appropriate activities to pursue with their child, and provide alternative strategies for teaching a child to self-regulate when distressed or bored (Radesky et al., 2015).

Technology is not the enemy.

Whether technology helps or hurts in the development of children’s thinking depends on the particular technology used, how frequently it’s used and whether it’s meaningful for learning. Early childhood educators and parents need to look beyond the app advertisements to evaluate the appropriate use of technology themselves to consider its educational value. When devices are used, parents and teachers should be encouraged to try a game or app first, play with it with the child, and ask the child about it afterwards to see what he or she is learning. This provides an opportunity for language-rich interactions and discussions which help to support brain development (Radesky et al., 2015).

Technology is not the enemy. The key is to find a balance between screen-time and concrete investigative activities that help to build the brain. Technology is not going away, and because there are countless educational benefits to its usage, it’s important to find ways to teach young children the skills they need to thrive in this digital world.

DeGaetano, Gloria. Visual media and young children’s attention spans. Media Literacy Review.

Radesky, J.S, Schumacher J., Zuckerman B. (2015). Mobile and interactive media use by young children: The good, the bad and the unknown. Pediatric Perspectives.

Rowan, Chris (2009). Technology overuse on child sensory development. OTLine.

Taylor, Jim (2012). How technology is changing the way children think and focus. Psychology Today.

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