iPhones, iPads, iPods ... they're everywhere and they've been eagerly embraced by parents and children alike, but what effect will technology have on the iGeneration?
In April, it was reported that a 4-year-old girl in the UK was receiving therapy for "screen addiction" after she became increasingly distressed and inconsolable when her iPad was taken away from her. Over the space of a year, the girl had become addicted to using her iPad for up to four hours a day. Dr Richard Graham, who launched the UK's first technology addiction programme and was responsible for treating the child, said he believed there are many more addicts of her age.
Carey Kirk, a counselling psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, isn't surprised. She believes that children's dependency on iPads and smartphones is similar to the dependency other addicts experience. "Technology use activates the same reward system pathways in the brain as drug and alcohol use, and can elicit the same withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, irritability, restlessness, anger, depression and confusion," she says.
Five long-term effects of heavy screen use during the early stages of a child's development
Motor skills: While playing games on an iPad can be educational, too much screen time can cause children to miss out on real-life experiences. Some apps for toddlers even replicate the idea of building blocks. In this scenario, babies and toddlers are missing out on the experience of actually attempting to build with blocks, and therefore not gaining the motor skills usually involved with this process.
Re-wiring: "There is a general consensus that by 2020, the brains of young people will be 'wired differently' from those over 35 years of age," explains Dr Rebecca Steingiesser, a psychologist and clinical neuropsychologist at The LightHouse Arabia. "Some argue that this 'new wiring' will allow people to find answers quickly and demonstrate no shortcomings in their cognitive processes. However, a large proportion of people argue that this 'new wiring' will result in more easily distracted individuals who lack deep thinking and reasoning skills, with a desire for instant gratification."
Persistence: "There is widespread concern among teachers and school counsellors in Dubai that children's constant use of digital technology hampers their attention span and their ability to persist and complete difficult tasks," says Steingiesser. "Children are more likely to give up and become easily frustrated when completing challenging tasks that require patience and feedback."
Behavioural difficulties: By the time they turn 7, children born today will have spent the equivalent of an entire year of their lives watching some form of small screen, according to Dr Aric Sigman, a biologist and psychologist.
"A number of studies have highlighted an association between excessive screen time and neuropsychological and behavioural difficulties such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], reduced physical activity, obesity, irregular sleeping patterns, academic delay, violence and difficulties with emotional regulation," says Steingiesser.
Unhappiness: Dopamine (the "happy" hormone) is released when children engage in play, communication with others and physical activity. "Children who overuse technology are not allowing their dopaminergic systems to develop or function properly, which results in stunted development of creativity as well as low mood and underdeveloped coping skills," Steingiesser says.
How did this happen?
Workload is the primary factor. Given that parents around the world are working longer hours and experiencing high levels of stress, it's natural to want some quiet time when they return home. However, this is typically the time when children wish to engage with their parents. "Rather than giving our children time and attention, there is a tendency for some parents to 'keep them entertained' by watching TV or playing on an iPhone or iPad," says Steingiesser.
Some call this lazy parenting, others think it's worse. "'Passive parenting' in the face of the new media environment is a form of benign neglect," warns Sigman. "Parents must regain control of their own households."
The problem is compounded by the addictive nature of technology. "The dopamine reward in the brain continues to be released each time a child finishes a game or fails a level on a game, meaning that they will be more inclined to continue playing and find it difficult to stop," Steingiesser says.
What should parents do?
- Wait, and then wait some more. Experts at The LightHouse Arabia recommend that parents not introduce their children to iPads and smartphones until they are at least 6 or 7 years old. "The use of an iPad as an educational tool can be an exception as long as it is limited to a couple of hours a week, the child is actively supervised by an adult and it does not preclude imaginative play and social interaction opportunities," says Carey Kirk, a counselling psychologist.
- Take your eyes off the screen. Parents who maintain high levels of "eye-to-screen contact" at home are likely to instil similar behaviour in their children.
- Stand your ground. "While working with parents in Dubai, we have noticed that parents often struggle to limit their child's technology usage because they're worried about upsetting them," says Kirk. "We encourage you to stand your ground. Our role as parents is not to allow our children everything they want but to set the stage for our children to build successful and fulfilling lives. They will be more equipped with the skills to do this if their development is not impacted by early and excessive technology use."
- Control yourself. Technology is everywhere and parents need to fight the inclination to hand a child an iPad or smartphone to keep them occupied.
- Introduce a technology-free hour each day. This is helpful in maintaining a sense of control and preventing technology from "taking over" family life.