For adults, technology is an awesome tool capable of improving our productivity, increasing our access to information, and connecting us with people around the world. Nearly all of us have smartphones in our pockets and several connected devices around the home, and we don’t have to spend much time thinking about whether it’s healthy to be using them.
But for children, technology is a different story. Childhood development is a highly sensitive process, forming a child’s foundational understanding of the world while being extremely responsive to stimuli, stresses, and changes.
There are some who argue that technology is inherently bad for children, interfering with their development and exposing them to external risks, while others argue it could be a good thing. So where does the truth lie?
Of course, some of the effects depend on how the technology is being used. Sometimes, parents use tablets or smartphones as teaching tools for their children, introducing them to new subjects or helping them with areas that require improvement. Other times, they use digital devices as a form of entertainment or distraction, to keep their child’s focus for long periods of time. Obviously, these applications will have different effects on the child’s development.
Still, there are some technological commonalities that extend beyond any single app or type of device; for example, nearly all tech devices are backlit with a characteristic blue light, and requires a specific type of focus from the eyes.
So how could these potential uses of technology affect a developing child’s brain? Fortunately, researchers are already working to answer that question—with data to back them up.
There’s at least some evidence to support the idea that technology, when used for educational purposes, can improve a child’s comprehension. For example, in one study involving 266 kindergarten students, children who used an iPad to supplement their classes scored significantly better on literacy tests, when compared to counterparts who learned exclusively through traditional methods.
This study doesn’t take into account the secondary effects that technology use can have on a developing brain, but is evidence that positive-intentioned apps can make a difference in a child’s development.
Screen Time and Speech Acquisition
According to one study presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) Meeting suggests that children who are exposed to more screen time with digital devices may be at higher risk for delays in acquiring speech. The study examined nearly 900 children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years between 2011 and 2015. Measuring variables including self-reported daily screen time and language abilities, researchers found that for every 30-minute increase in handheld screen time, there was a 49 percent increase in risk for expressive speech delay. However, there was no correlation between increased screen time and other forms of communication delays, such as gestures or body language.
This suggests that exposure to technology could interfere with a child’s ability to develop and use language, though the generic look at “screen time” did not specify what types of apps were used.
Attention, Comprehension, and Memory
A growing body of research is confirming that frequent exposure to online content and interactions may be harming children’s attention spans, ability to form memories, and comprehension of that content. Reading in a traditional format requires sustained, focused attention, with few or no distractions interfering with the main text. Traditional readers are also forced to call upon their imaginations and memory to retain the information.
Online readers, by contrast, are bombarded with distractions in the form of hyperlinks, ads, and supplementary information. They can search for whatever they don’t remember or understand, and therefore aren’t trained to improve their imagination and recall. Accordingly, children who spend too much time in an online environment, rather than a traditional one, may suffer reduced focus, and poorer content retention.
Eye Strain and Vision Development
Exposure to screens forces our eyes to focus in a way that isn’t found in nature, and exposes us to blue light, 3D-rendered graphics, and other unnatural emissions. For an adult, whose eyes and vision have been trained in a natural environment, these aren’t a major cause for concern. But for children, long-term exposure to these screens may cause permanent vision problems, or at a minimum, serious eye strain, headaches, and other vision-related problems.
So is technology good or bad for childhood development? Technology is too broad a category, and “good” and “bad” are too absolute to say for certain. However, there are some benefits that can come from technology—and a host of additional problems if you aren’t careful. This is a relatively new area of study, so until we have more conclusion research demonstrating a long-term causal link between technology and developmental problems, it’s best to err on the side of caution, and limit the screen time your children get each day.