Technology 7 min read

Touchscreens Might Interfere with Childhood Development

Khryzhov |

Khryzhov |

Welcome to the future, where a constant concern for every parent is how much “screen time” their kids should have in a world filled with myriad sources of blue light. As it turns out, too much screen time could be a very bad thing for childhood development.

Many adults lose sleep just to get a few more minutes (read: hours) using a touchscreen. Whether you are up all night checking your Twitter feed or finishing the last level on your favorite mobile game, it’s easy to lose time to technology. Problem is, sleep deprivation can have negative long-term health effects for adulthood as well as childhood development.

Remember: this is the adults we’re talking about. You know, the people that are expected to be the mature ones with experiential decision-making abilities.

Imagine, then, how impossible it is for kids to regulate their own screen time.

Whether pure hypocrisy or due to their first-hand awareness of their screen time overload, these parents ration their kids’ screen time. This is a good thing. While losing sleep stinks for an adult, it can altogether throw a wrench in childhood development, leading to big problems down the road.

That being said, it may be time to consider how we introduce our children to the Internet of Things and the various devices that interact with it. According to a recent study in the journal Scientific Reports, touchscreens could contribute to a loss of sleeping time for toddlers.

The Siren Call of a Back-lit Screen

For those of us who grew up when computers weren’t so ubiquitous, it is no surprise that too much television or too many video games can affect how much sleep we get. But those are things that we could live without.

Well, some people could; child-me would have probably died of boredom if it weren’t for video games.

These days the touchscreen is a vital component of our lives, and this is just as true for the developing mind as it is for the developed. School systems across the civilized world are making liberal use of modern computer technology for every aspect of a child’s education, so if there are any adverse health effects associated with touchscreen use then it behooves us to find them and address them before it is too late.

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Which brings us to the study in Scientific Reports.

Touchscreens bad for Childhood Development

The study called upon the parents of 715 children between the ages of six months to three years. The parents were asked to monitor the daytime and night-time sleeping habits of their kids, including how quickly they fell asleep, how often they woke at night, and also how much time was spent on touchscreens during their waking hours. The initial findings showed that 75% of toddlers and 92% of children between the ages of 2 and 3 were logging an average of 25 minutes of touchscreen use every day.

According to the study, time using touchscreens directly correlated with the children having a harder time falling asleep as well as getting less sleep overall. This could get bad, as one clinical social worker says that childhood development can be seriously hampered by sleep deprivation.

On average, the study found that the children lost 16 minutes of sleep for every extra hour of using touchscreens during the day. Thankfully, the quality of sleep remained the same.

The findings aren’t without dispute, however, and they should not be taken as pure fact. Many experts have questioned the methodology of the study, including Professor Kevin Conway at the Open University of Britain, who posited that it could be the other way around. According to Conway, “maybe the parents of toddlers who already sleep less are more likely to let their children use touchscreens.”

At the end of the day, while we can determine that there is a link between touchscreen use and loss of sleep, it is still unclear why that link exists.

That being said, this is all part of an old argument regarding the best way to educate a developing mind. Should we teach children without technology first, or should we let it influence their learning from day one?

An Educator’s Perspective

In the world of education, EdTech is taking everything by storm. Entire curriculums are being planned for online classrooms, and many school systems are assigning students a tablet which acts as a portal to their classes and homework. If screen use is a problem, then we are in for a world of trouble for the next generation of young minds.

Certain school systems, however, eschew technology in the first few years of a child’s education. Known as Waldorf schools, these institutions operate under the assumption that teaching children to get by without technology makes technology far more useful when it is finally introduced into their educational process. This concept sounds a lot like the Luddites, but not the ones that most people think of when that word is introduced into the discussion.

While the word ‘luddite’ tends to describe someone who hates technology, the actual history of that word comes from a group of people whose motivation wasn’t a hatred of technology but a fear of what it meant to have technology replace human capability. In fact, the Luddites were mostly highly skilled technicians that simply wanted to keep traditional apprenticeships and trades intact in the face of technologies that threatened to churn out cheaply made products with little to no skill involved.

In fact, the Luddites were mostly highly skilled technicians that simply wanted to keep traditional apprenticeships and trades intact in the face of technologies that threatened to churn out cheaply made products with little to no skill involved.

In much the same way, proponents of Waldorf schools don’t want to excise technology from education completely, they just want to teach students how to get by without it first.

Speaking as an educator, I can say that there is certainly merit to that idea. But not so fast.

Sure, the kids will presumably be able to learn without tech, but without a familiarity with educational technology, those same students may be worse off when they are put in an environment where tech is necessary for success.

Imagine a self-sufficient student who learned how to research in a library but not online. If you put that student in a situation where he must research online during class, you might not have the time necessary for him or her to catch up.

Teachers have to meet standards during each grading period (which usually lasts about 6 weeks, depending on the school system), and if they have to teach computer use, then they have less time to help their students meet that standard. That’s bad for the kid, and bad for the teacher, too.

Personally, I think that a little bit of both philosophies is proper.

Teach kids to be self-sufficient, but make sure they know how to use the tools available to them. Instead of expecting an English teacher to teach online research, have a class dedicated to educational computer use, and have it as early in the child’s life as possible.

And let’s not forget some of the new opportunities on the horizon, such as VR classrooms.

We may be on the cusp of a shift in the dynamics of the classroom, where being face to face with your teacher is supplanted by strapping on a headset from the comfort of home. There are many benefits to that kind of setup, but what we don’t yet know if what effect that will have on the health of the student or teacher.

If these new technologies are actually bad for us, then we need to know, because they are being implemented as you read this and likely will be going into the future.

But that’s just my thoughts on the matter. What do you think? What are touchscreens and technology in education doing for our students? What else should we worry about besides childhood development?

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William is an English teacher, a card carrying nerd, And he may run for president in 2020. #truefact #voteforedgy

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