Wired for Less Wire Part 2: Children’s Development

Posted: October 31, 2013
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In my last article, I argued that the human person has relationship needs that are fundamental and universal; as adults, in our friendships, marriages, and other family relationships, we have a significant need for face-to-face time and a real presence.  It is likely, then, no surprise that children need such connections and attachment opportunities all the more.  Professionals from different disciplines are beginning to weigh in on how the proliferation of technological options for communicating have deleterious effects on the development of children. 

Trends Seen By Professionals

Use:  Pediatric Occupational Therapist Cris Rowan laments how the childhood of years past, with its imaginary games, active playtimes, and even family chores has been supplanted by technology's accelerated lifestyles.  Today’s families are unlikely to spend much time together in ways that are not mediated or accompanied by some type of electronic device.  She states that technology “is fracturing [the family’s] very foundation, and causing a disintegration of core values that long ago were the fabric that held families together.” 

Although there are multiple factors that are contributing to this growing encroachment, her assessment is that the use of communication technology to juggle the multitude of school, work, home, and community commitments is harming our youth.  Rowan cites a 2010 Kaiser Foundation study which showed that elementary-aged children use on average over seven hours of entertainment technology per day; 75 percent of these children have TV's in their bedrooms, and 50 percent of North American homes have the TV on all day.  The trend is increasing as well, up dramatically over the previous five years. 

Impact:  Rowan asserts that “today's young are entering school struggling with self-regulation and attention skills necessary for learning, eventually becoming significant behavior management problems for teachers in the classroom.”  A variety of psychiatric syndromes (e.g., attention deficits, coordination problems, speech delays, learning difficulties, sensory processing issues, anxiety, depression and sleep difficulties) are associated with the overuse of technology, and I would suggest that such overuse has either a causal role in such syndromes or exacerbates an existing condition, depending upon the child.

In preparing the recently released Diagnostic Manual for Psychiatry (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association considered listing “Internet Use Disorder” among those conditions being studied to determine if they are bona fide psychiatric issues, but at present has stopped short of doing so.  Thus, while the overuse of the internet or other technology is not itself deemed a disorder, we should consider that the consequences of chronic, habitual focus away from human relationships, peer interactions, family outings, and the like, are, at a minimum, problematic. 

Occupational therapists suggest that movement, touch, human connection and exposure to nature are four critical factors needed for the healthy development of children.  Whereas technology deprives the child of opportunities to develop their sense of balance and awareness of their position in space, as well as their sense of touch and interpersonal attachment to others, it pushes their visual and auditory sensory systems into dangerous overload.  This sensory imbalance creates huge problems in overall neurological development, permanently altering and impairing the brain's anatomy, chemistry and pathways.  Rowan states that “while the long term effects of this chronic state of stress in the developing child are unknown, we do know that chronic stress in adults results in weakened immune systems and a variety of serious diseases and disorders.”

Solutions: Dr. Tim Elmore was quoted recently in Psychology Today  stating there are five things that can be done to stem the tide: 
     (1) Go outside: Take a walk. Enjoy nature. Slow down your pace;
     (2) Find a place to serve others: Build empathy through community service;
     (3) Go on a technology fast: Unplug from it all for 24-48 hours;
     (4) Balance the hours in front of a screen with face-to-face hours with people;
     (5) Wait on something you want in order to build your “delayed gratification” muscle. 

These five ideas are in line with Rowan’s call for effective strategies to reduce technology use. 

Elmore’s ideas not only offer ways in which parents can assist their children in decreasing their use of, and reliance upon, technology, but also aid in the development of virtuous habits that will serve the youth well throughout their lifetimes.  Traditional virtues of fortitude, charity and temperance can be fostered by abstaining, delaying, and consciously considering whether the desire to access and utilize the latest gadget and technology is the best use of one’s time. 

In suggesting this path, however, we must acknowledge the impact of development on judgment.  Evidence has increased over the past decade showing that cognitive faculty of rational judgment is not fully developed until sometime in the third decade of life—many putting the age around 25 years old.  What this means is that our youth, and potentially even our young adults, need assistance in determining whether they are using too much technology, and which uses are in their best interest

Parenting: The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love
In parenting, some of the most difficult interventions with which we are confronted are those that involve similarities with our own behavior.  Put simply, it’s difficult to rail against the dangers of alcohol use to your teen when you are sipping your after-dinner whiskey.  While on the one hand you would have drinking-age laws and experience in temperance (hopefully) on your side, on the other hand, there is importance and value in avoiding the clichéd “do what I say not what I do.” 

Children are interested in what you are doing, and if they observe your near-constant attention on the TV, computer, or “I-whatever” device, then they will see that as good and normal.  You may be working on a critical deadline for your boss, but they only perceive the distracted email checking at the dinner table or evenings spent working on the computer.  In such light, their “gaming” or “chatting” appear to be reasonable and acceptable analogs. 

The challenge before us is monumental: it is the mental and physical health of the future generation.  Many of us of parenting age can recall life before cell phones and the internet, and know that we survived and even thrived.  But now “times have changed,” and these things seem indispensable.  Yet, without setting them aside, significantly aside, how do we afford our children the blessings of a walk in nature, imaginative play, and the serenity of the bedtime story or lullaby?

We lead by example.  We unplug.  We rest and enjoy with them.  And they love it.