I’m not like a regular aunt. I’m like… a “cool aunt.” A large part of my cool-aunt status is based solely on my social media operating level. Like, I know that Tumblr is a blog. Twitter is over unless you’re into self harm. By self harm, I mean the news cycle. Vom.
I like to regularly comment hilarious things on my teen babies IGs. By hilarious, I mean funny, but still full on embarrassing because they are being typed by a 30 year old. But, I know they secretly love it! How I know?! They let that shit live for 8-10 hours before deleting. *heart eyes* I’m pretty confident that my artistic legacy will be a compilation book of comments I’ve left on my runts’ accounts. Published from a collection of screenshots they compiled before cheekily pressing delete.
When I hear people talk about the perils of parenting in the digital era, I’m like loosen up. Give those nuggets a tablet and talk about important formative topics in random strings of emojis. You will be opening not only another line of communication but also an added layer of bonding. Parents of the 80s feared TV would rot kids’ brains. I’d like to think I’m living proof that a diet of morning cartoons and food coloured cereal are totally survivable, even enriching. In a university essay, I once even credited Sesame Street for equipping me with important moral teachings like people with everyday jobs are valuable and interesting and friends come in all shapes and sizes. Imagine what turns my life might have taken if my mom had denied me screen time?
So, when I recently learned on Vice doc Screened and Confused about an emerging trend of parents raising their children completely screen free, I got concerned. How will we ever solve the ‘girls who code’ deficit if this keeps up? Ah hello…feminism?! In all seriousness, we live in a digital age; technology is a part of our lives on the daily in the modern world. When children enter wired classrooms with no previous technological knowledge or tools at home to practice with, will they fall behind their peers? Struggle to connect socially − when they begin to have access to social media via their friends and have had no conversations about things like photoshopped images, online bullying, etc.? Will they be more susceptible to their potentially deleterious effects? What’s the story here?
According to Screened and Confused, the major concerns motivating parents to omit screens at home has to do with learning and socialization. “It cuts people off from interactions with others. It’s the isolationism that these screens create around each person,” said one mother.
In a Psychology Today article What Technology Really Does to Kids Brains, Dr. Liraz Margalit writes, “The brain’s frontal lobe is the area responsible for decoding and comprehending social interactions.” She adds, “where we learn how to read the hundreds of unspoken signs—facial expression, tone of voice, and more—that add colour and depth to real-world relationships…Not surprisingly, the most crucial stage is in early childhood… and it’s dependent on authentic human interactions. So if your young child is spending all of his time in front of an iPad instead of chatting and playing with teachers and other children, his empathic abilities—the near-instinctive way you and I can read situations and get a feel for other people—will be dulled” And, “possibly for good.” she warns.
Ok, so the Vice mamas had a point with regards to socialization: early tech use can have serious impacts on the development of children’s social skills. But, what about the potential educational benefits of using technology? Are the 80,000+ educational apps available on iTunes for children really of no potential benefit? Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, in the same Psychology Today article warned when very young children get too much screen time − even with educational apps and games − it can cause permanent damage to their developing brains. Early screen time he shared “is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.”
When I googled a bit further into the topic, I found an overwhelming amount of studies all concluding that screen time does terrible things to young brains. Perhaps not “rotting” them as mothers of the 80s once feared, but certainly having detrimental and potentially irreversible effects in some cases. Among those effects, an over-release of dopamine can cause addictive behaviour, agitation, attention deficit disorders, and anxiety to name a few. Children who get too accustomed to the immediate gratification of smartphone style stimuli response will come to prefer it over face-to-face interaction. Give a child your smartphone, and try to get their attention to do another RL version of the on screen play activity. I don’t think there’s a child on the planet that would choose dress up over Snapchat filters.
Most of the research out there is clear on the dangers of screen time in youth. The evidence is so convincing that American Academy of Pediatrics has instituted strict guidelines per a child’s exposure to technology:
- infants should have no contact,
- 3-5 year olds are allocated one hour per day, and
- 6-18 year olds are allotted two hours per day.
Responsible use is good. Researcher Judith Horstman found “video gaming leads to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention, and that gaming can lead to ‘marked increases in the speed of information processing” in her piece Brave New Brain in the Scientific American. She wasn’t alone; Lisa Manfield in an article in Back Bone magazine also concluded, “[r]ather than simply catching ‘digital ADD,’ many [young people] are developing neural circuitry that is customized for rapid and incisive spurts of directed concentration”. So the data isn’t all bad news!
The reality is millennials are serving as the digital era’s guinea pigs. We don’t know what we don’t know; all of the effects technology is having/will have on individuals/humanity. But if you’ve spent the last few years scrolling various social media feeds, you and your attention span both know there are big cognitive impacts worth keeping a close eye on.
Instagram alone has been said to have created a culture in and of itself. A tribe 18-35, 800 million users strong who have popularized avocado toast, online consumerism, and have users choosing travel destinations and activities based solely on their ‘instagrammability’. When this was brought to my intention a couple weeks ago while I scrolled through stories during a lull in my Sunday girls’ brunch, I debated for days before I could bring myself to delete the app. Since the morning I x’ed that giggly icon, I’ve been counting the days with the fervour of a 12-stepper.
The cognitive effects of technology aren’t just reserved for young brains but have effects on all brains and human behaviour. An all-or-nothing approach like with most things isn’t going to be the bug fix here. Technology is going to be a part of children lives and of great potential benefit to them. The answer lies in how we approach all of life’s most wonderful things: Taco’s, Lattes and Rose. The key is moderation and education. And ‘cool’ aunts can have a really big impact, leading by example when it comes to digital hygiene. Making sure to not impart a do as I say, not as I selfie approach, but practicing powering off and putting a priority on face-to-face interactions and conversations. Even if they are about tech.
Featured Image: Hil + Ariel + Carter | @gregersengals
Image 1: Hal Gatewood | Unsplash
Image 2: Jelleke Vanootegham | Unsplash
- Manfield, Lisa. “This is Your Brain on Technology.” Backbone Magazine. 26 Jan. 2009. Web.11 Nov. 2014.
- Horstman, Judith. The Scientific American Brave New Brain. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.