An investigation into the possible downsides and beneficial effects of technology on the development of children.

Technology has become a part of everyday life. We are all immersed in technology from the moment we wake up to the minute we go to sleep; every aspect of life now involves some form of technology and communications. This pervasive access to technology has a huge impact in the lives of children today more than ever before. Children in the western world now grow up in an environment where technology is ever-present in many aspects of their lives, in some cases from when they are old enough to hold a device. As long ago as 2009, 29% of American children aged between 8 and 18 had their own laptop computer. There are beneficial effects of technology as well as downsides. I will investigate both types of effect.

Shifting centre of belonging

During the Circular’s investigation an interview with Professor Jim Sheehan, Family and Couples Therapist, was conducted, he described one of the biggest changes in children’s lives today that relates to the ‘centre of belonging’.

“For children, in the context of technology in their home lives, a major change is that their centre of belonging gets shifted from being with their family, as in other siblings and their parents, to having their centre of belonging now becomes their peers. Before the big technologies like Mobile and Games, all of those ways of making contact with one another, children’s contact with their peers ended for the day when they came home from school. Now it doesn’t and it continues right up to the time that they go to sleep.”

Technology used today. Photo Credit Sadbh Maguire

The shift in the centre of belonging has taken place within a generation. Although this may be seen as an entirely bad thing this is not necessarily the case. Professor Sheehan described a situation where children who have poor relationships with their family, for whatever reason, can gain support from their peers throughout the day and night because they now have access to technology.

Isolation within a family group

On the other hand, this access to technology can lead to the negative effect of isolation within the home and family. Many people would be aware of this effect from casual observation of group behaviour in their own families. “Everybody goes into their own room with their own machine, computer, mobile, games, the lot”, said Prof. Sheehan.  In an extreme case the individuals can all be present in the same space or room but still isolated from each other. Prof. Sheehan gave an example of such a situation by describing a recent case where he had an appointment with a family in their home. When he arrived at the family home the door was answered by the dad, who was on his mobile phone. He called Prof. Sheehan in and pointed him towards the kitchen. No one looked up when he went in, nobody greeted him. The mother was on her laptop and the children were busy on their own devices. Prof. Sheehan promptly turned around and left. After a few minutes the dad called and asked him to return. Prof. Sheehan agreed to return but only on condition that they all put their devices away.

Parents think technology is essential

Prof. Sheehan stated that, “Most parents that I meet now see it as essential, they see it as mandatory for them, as parents, to make technology available…. that is not to say that parents do not have a huge amount of ambivalence about it, because they do.” Parents believe it’s essential but have mixed feeling about whether it’s a good or bad thing. In many cases the access to technology is through a mobile phone and this is to allow the parent to be able to contact the child on a 24-hour basis. Prof. Sheehan’s experience has shown that access to technology has to go hand-in-hand with proper parental supervision (through restriction settings on mobile phone/devices) so that children are not exposed to inappropriate content. There is a growing need for parents themselves to be educated about the benefits and dangers of technology so they can protect their children through monitoring and controlling access.

Physical effects

Many people are aware that access to technology for children needs to be supervised and controlled. However, there is a lack of awareness about the physical dangers associated with technology. These range from ‘textneck’, which is extra strain on the neck muscles caused by inclining the head forward for long periods of time while sitting and looking at various devices. Dr. Robert Bolash, a pain specialist at Cleveland Clinic USA states, “research shows that for every inch you drop your head forward you double the load on those muscles. Looking down at your smartphone, with your chin to your chest, you can put about sixty pounds of force on your neck”.

Expansion and contraction of childhood space

In the 1700s in Europe several countries started to write legislation to expand the space of childhood. At the time children were brought into the workforce from a very early age and the new thinking was that childhood should become a protected space. As time progressed the laws that made child labour illegal have become prevalent throughout the world. Prof. Sheehan states that technology has contracted the duration of childhood and allowed children to be exposed to more information and content. “Children have access to lots of information now, they are able to be interested in lots of things that affect them and their environment but what it does is it joins them into a really adult world very early,” he explained. The ordinary childhood imagination is stimulated through play with peers and ordinary objects like the playground, a football, a hurley.

The development of childhood imagination can be hampered by the availability of so much technology. In the past, childhood development was inhibited by entering the workforce prematurely and today childhood development is being inhibited by inhabiting a more adult environment earlier and through exposure to technology. Childhood is contracting again.

In a recent article in the Mirror, Psychologist Emma Kenny said: “Computer games can help with cognitive development and reaction time. Having a relationship with computers is important. Children need to go out and explore the world and on a psychological basis it’s essential to experience peer relationships. Face-to-face communication is part of being a social animal. There is evidence that those who spend lots of time on games have lower compassion and empathy, which are important for forming relationships. We find they are not imaginative or active. Often, it’s like they have zoned out.”

Impact on family life

“Homes have been turned into playgrounds where people become individuals, it’s not a community any more…. people do not eat together, they go to their own room with their own technology. It’s like a hotel, people do not talk to each other” said Prof. Sheehan. People do not relate to their siblings in the same way as with previous generations. A recent study of sibling relationships showed that many siblings had a greater knowledge of the personal lives of celebrities than of their own siblings. This is because they spend so little time talking and interacting with their siblings in a face to face environment.

Xbox, Photo Credit Sadbh maguire

Addiction and aggression

Video games and computer games are frequently cited as the sources of aggression and addiction in children. There is no doubt that certain children can suffer an addiction to video games. A recent current affairs programme (Claire Byrne Live) had a concerned mother of a ten-year old boy who wrote in. She described how her child’s behaviour had changed after playing a popular video game. “His mood had changed, it has become a huge battle to try and get him off the X-Box. Rows every evening, my usual outgoing and happy ten-year-old has turned into a miserable depressed child because we have taken away the X-Box.” The game in question is a violent video game available to download on all technology platforms for free.  Today the game has been downloaded fifty million times worldwide.

A young boy in the audience admitted to spending at least six hours a day playing the game. Clinical psychologist Dr. David Coleman said during an interview on Claire Byrne live, “It is causing huge conflict in lots of houses. The kids are getting so into playing it and become so distressed when asked to stop that the parents are struggling… some kids are even trying to play it before school, play it instead of doing their homework. Causing nightmares in some households.”

A professor of psychology at Iowa State University, Douglas Gentile, said at a recent meeting in the White House, “the more children consume media violence, whether that’s in video games, TV, or movies the more willing to behave aggressively when provoked they become.” In America more than 90% of children play video games. Among children between the ages of 12 and 17 the number rises to 97%. Of the video games on the market, 85% contain some sort of violence.

Professor Sheehan’s view on this influence is, “I think there is (a correlation) but it is a complex relationship. Child and adolescent behaviour is never just a kind of learning from video games. It is mediated by a whole lot of other factors including; parental relationships with children; teacher relationship with children and how the culture around the boys, for example, is moderated… people and teachers are able to stand back and say ‘you know what, that’s a video game, this is real life. We don’t treat people like that’.”

Conclusion: technology isn’t all bad

A fair and balanced investigation into the effects of technology on children today would have to include some the benefits that can derived from technology, as there are many such benefits. “Some of the good bits are, I think that technology has opened up children and adolescents to a lot more information about the world. So, what I find is, for example, young people coming to me now by comparison to twenty years ago, they have a global perspective, even in childhood and that’s positive…they even have a global perspective in their schools they have a global perspective as they end up doing projects in Ireland for schools in Africa and India.”  

Children are therefore better informed about conditions for other children in other countries around the world. This access to information allows the children to develop a greater understanding of the world that they inhabit and allows them to empathise with children from other countries. This has to be considered as being beneficial to the individual child as well as society as a whole.