Being a parent in an era overrun with technology can be challenging. On one hand, you want your child to have access to the latest technology, so they can develop the skills necessary to use it effectively as they grow up and eventually become contributing members of society. On the other, it’s natural to be concerned about the negative effects of technology on childhood development—including the temptations of video games, social media, and other apps that pull children away from the natural exploration of their environment.
How can you find the right balance? And how much do we really know about how technology affects development?
The Importance of Freedom and Exploration
Technology is a tempting distraction for children; it’s much easier and arguably physically safer to let them chill in front of the television than to let them play outside or roam the neighborhood. However, “free ranging” and natural exploration are important features of childhood. Freedom and exploration are critical opportunities for children to develop self-confidence, understand the world around them, and most importantly, make mistakes and learn from them. They don’t have that opportunity if they’re constantly relying on digital devices to entertain themselves.
Recognizing the Objective Negative Effects of Technology
There are also some objectively negative effects of technology on childhood development that we currently understand:
Vision. Too much screen time is bad for anyone; if you spend many hours looking at a screen without taking the proper breaks, you could develop computer vision syndrome, leading to poorer eyesight, eye strain, and even headaches. Similarly, the use of certain kinds of technology at too young an age can lead to problems with sight development; 3D tech, for example, is not recommended for young children.
Social skills. Using technology by itself won’t stagnate the development of social skills, but if used in place of social experiences, it can have negative consequences. For example, if your child spends their free time playing video games on their own, but doesn’t play with other people in face-to-face interactions, they may struggle to make friendships and interact throughout their youth.
Attention and distraction. Evidence suggests that reading content filled with hyperlinks, ads, and other features we associate with online works is much more distracting that reading something in a book. Over time, relying too much on online and/or digital content could cause problems with focus and attention spans, which are especially problematic when a child starts school.
Inappropriate content. If your child has unrestricted access to the internet, it wouldn’t be hard for them to stumble upon inappropriate content, like violence or sexual content. The effects of these types of content on childhood development aren’t well-studied, but most parents shudder at the thought of extensive exposure to this content. Fortunately, this is an easy one to avoid if you monitor your child’s online traffic closely and install restrictive software.
Sleep. It’s no secret that exposure to digital screens can interfere with your sleep hygiene. Looking at digital screens for too long before bed can keep you up later. Sleep deprivation has a number of negative consequences for your physical and mental health, and those effects are even more pronounced in young children, who need more hours of sleep each night.
Physical activity. Then, there’s the dilemma of physical activity. Technology is often used as a substitute for activities that might require some degree of physical exercise. Spending too much time online, watching TV, or engaging with other technologies could dramatically reduce the level of physical activity the average child gets. Over time, that sedentary lifestyle can result in the development of childhood obesity, which can lead to a number of other physical health consequences.
Technology as a Learning Tool
That said, technology isn’t entirely a bad thing. Some studies show that regularly playing video games and engaging with screens can improve visual-spatial skills while improving reaction times. Obviously, having access to online resources like Wikipedia can also present kids with more information and more learning opportunities than ever before.
We also need to consider the fact that technology is becoming so integrated into our society that it functions as a kind of extension of ourselves, rather than something entirely separate. Learning how to use that technology effectively and responsibly from an early age likely provides more of a functional advantage than being deprived of it.
Ultimately, technology is neither strictly good nor strictly bad as a tool or feature of childhood development. Even in specific areas of study, like on attention spans or cognitive retention, evidence is too sparse to be truly conclusive. It’s up to you as a parent to decide what role you want technology to play in your child’s growth and development.