It’s undeniable that technology has made the world a wealthier place and we are continuing to push the boundaries of our limitations, but at what cost? Will it be to the detriment of our children’s mental health?
Although technology has developed at an exponential rate, it must be asked if we, the developers and consumers, have also kept up with the demands on our time and attention and at what cost? Are the bright lights and dopamine filled fun that technology now offers, causing us to lose touch with the fundamental elements of human interaction and are we prioritising screen time over real life connection?
As clinicians, we use something called the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM) as an authoritative guide in order to diagnose mental disorders. The latest version of this, version five, did not recognise the Internet as an addiction, however, it’s safe to say that people can still have an unhealthy relationship with it.
For example, a study from Pew Research found that more than 50 percent of 13 to 17-year-olds go online several times a day and nearly a quarter are online "almost constantly."
According to a recent survey by Common Sense, a parent advocacy group, nearly sixty percent of parents think their teens are addicted to mobile devices. There are no signs of this trend abating anytime soon, in fact its only likely to get worse.
As the late Stephen Hawking said: ‘the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge’. To date, we have no idea what impact this increased screen time will have on us and it requires further research as a matter of priority. As it stands, technology has infiltrated our everyday lives without much guidance on maintaining a healthy balance. Should we be focusing on introducing time limits to our screen use, or is it more about the content to which we are accessing on our screen? Personally, I feel the later takes priority.
If you took a picture of a car from fifty years ago and compare it to a car of today, you will notice a huge difference. The same can be said for cities fast developing cities like Dubai and Singapore. However, if you compared most classrooms, not much has changed. The seating arrangements are the same as is the position of the teacher and the board. It hasn’t moved on at the same rate as other areas but that is certainly changing.
We are driving more student led initiatives, looking at the different approaches to learning and using a Harkness method to promote interaction. Many schools have taken the initiative and introduced more technology into the classroom, including making it compulsory for students to have their own device in school to make learning much more interactive.
The Apple App store claims that it has over seventy five thousand apps specifically designed for educational purposes. Nearly three quarters of these apps are designed for toddlers and pre-schoolers which in itself raises its own ethical questions about whether developers should be targeting children at such a young age.
The French government has taken the stance of banning French channels from airing all TV programs, educational or otherwise, aimed at children under the age of three. The link between technology and educational performance is still being analysed with a report from the Organisation for Economic cooperation and Development (OECD) reporting that the link was ‘murky at best’.
While researching for a talk that I delivered to parents in Dubai, as part of our well-being program on screen-time earlier this year, I came across some fairly alarming statistics. For me the most poignant of them all was the total time spent on screen media during a lifetime. Current trends indicate that by the time a young person today reaches eighteen years of age, the average European child would have spent three full years of twenty-four hours a day watching a screen. Should the same child live till eighty and if current trends continue at the same rate, they would have spent 17.6 years glued to screens. A scary prospect!
Research indicates that the use of screens for infants has an adverse effect on their brain development. From birth our brains grow very quickly, within year one they will have grown by 300% and they don’t finish maturing till around age twenty-four. A crucial element of child development is learning from our environment. For example, when a toddler is learning to talk they learn through mimicking the sounds we make, whilst also learning from our facial expressions, smile, body language and the tone of our voice. This is not something they are going to learn from a screen and research indicates that screen time is delaying an infant’s ability to talk. On average a parent uses 940 words an hour when chatting to a toddler. When the TV is on this number reduces to 770, which also means that toddlers are learning fewer words.
For the older generation, the increased use of screens has the potential to lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, which means they aren’t engaging in sports, reading, playing outdoors or socialising as much which is linked to lower academic achievement, lower self-esteem and other mental health concerns.
As mentioned, we learn an awful lot through modelling others behaviour. You only have to look at the classic social learning study by Albert Bandura and his ‘Bobo Dolls’ experiment to see it in action. For parents, it’s vital that they look at their own relationship with screens and what behaviours they are modelling? When our child observes us relaxing with a cup of tea on the sofa, are we able to sit and unwind without scrolling through our phone?
If you take one thing away from this article, then I hope it’s that ‘children will always do as I do and not do as I say’. If we are modelling poor boundaries around screen time, then how do we expect our children to be any different?
In a report authored by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and a panel of twenty technologies, business and academic experts from around the world, they estimated that eighty-five percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 have not yet been invented. That is both staggering and anxiety provoking in equal measure. Having a more technologically focussed schooling environment is essential so that children of today are able to keep up with these demands. We will need to learn and adapt to new technologies on a constant basis. However, as the headmaster of Dubai College, Michael Lambert, recently wrote in an article in The National, that also requires a rethink on what the inspection criteria are for schools.
Something which I mentioned earlier in the article was whether we should focus on the amount of time we spend on a screen or whether we should look at the content. It may seem obvious, but it is important to highlight the difference between playing an hour of the latest computer game against an hour of using a screen for an educational purpose. Part of the aim of education is to instil a love of learning and a passion for a certain subject area. If technology engages students in a way that might not be possible with pen and paper, then it can only be a positive. By using technology, it can create a curiosity and a desire to understand further the subject at hand.
At home, it’s vital that you have conversations about screen time, not just about your children’s use but your own too. Make rules that you all have to adhere to. Can you implement ‘tech free’ zones around the dinner table to allow you to bond and catch up as a family. For this to work, everyone has to participate and understand the consequences for flouting the rules. If we feel that the rules are unrealistic and they’re not working out, then revisit them, alter them and try again. Our goals should never be set in stone, they need to be adaptable and fluid depending on the situation you find yourself in. Most importantly, keep them realistic, otherwise we are doomed to fail, and it will be a source of contention in the household.