Dr. Shmuel Mandelman
Klal Perspectives, Technology
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Technology and Media’s Impact on Child Development and Cognition
Technology and media have dramatically changed the world and the human experience, and will certainly continue to do so at an exceedingly rapid pace. While the benefits technology offers its users are clear, the effects it can have on the developing child are not. There is a scarcity of literature and scientific consensus surrounding this topic. The relative dearth of clear and definitive literature on this important topic can possibly be explained by the fact that technology and its novel applications evolve so rapidly that quality scientific literature simply cannot keep up. Scientific research takes time to be designed, conducted and published in a peer-reviewed outlet. In the currently constantly evolving technology environment, by the time a research cycle has been completed, the technology that had been the subject of the research is typically antiquated and has either been replaced or had its application dramatically changed since the design of the research. For research to be meaningful, it needs to ecologically valid, which means it must be reflective of and generalizable to the real world, which is exceedingly difficult considering the speed that technologies and their application change in today’s world.
This article provides a brief survey of some of the major themes and topics that emerge from the literature that does exist concerning the impact of technology and media on human development and cognition.
For the purposes of this article, a wide definition of technology and media will be adopted. Technology includes television and video, computers, internet and mobile devices while media is the content which is consumed or may be referring to social media platforms. Though there is some commonality between all of these mediums, there can be differences in terms of their impact, and often there are challenges more specific to one or another of these technologies. Much of the older research is focused on passive consumption of media, whereas today there are video games and other digital experiences that require a great deal of physical activity. As such, each form of technology must be evaluated independently. Additionally, attention must be paid not only to the medium itself, but also to its content.
Technology’s impact on child development is profound and complex. While formal cognitive development stage theories end in mid adolescence at around the age of sixteen, some research suggests that brain development extends well into a person’s twenties. The earliest years of development are thought to be most critical, as they serve as the foundation for all future development. Every child’s development unfolds within a unique environment, and factors within that environment directly impact the child’s developmental trajectory.
How does one define a child’s environment? How far do various environmental influences extend? In some of the most influential work in developmental psychology, Urie Bronfenbrenner, the force behind Head Start programs, developed a model that serves as a framework for understanding environmental effects on human development. In his Ecological Systems Theory, Bronfenbrenner (1974, 1977, 1979, 1994) posits that a child’s development is affected by nested factors and the interaction between these nested factors. He describes these factors “as a set of nested structures, each inside the next, like a set of Russian dolls” (1979, p.22). These nested factors are classically depicted by multiple concentric circles, the smallest and innermost circle representing the microsystem and the outermost the macro system. He argues that the influence of far more distal or seemingly remote forces than the immediate home environment (microsystem) are more significant than once prevalently thought. He includes among possible environmental influences such factors as societal and cultural norms, global economics, laws of the land and bodies of knowledge (which undoubtedly includes technological advances) – factors commonly thought of as far removed from the child (macrosystem, Bronfenbrenner, 1994).
Technology and media, possibly more so than any other influence, transcend all of the spheres of influences and their interactions suggested by Bronfenbrenner, since technology permeates so much of a child’s life and environment, as well as the world at large. Some scholars (Johnson & Puplampu, 2008) have gone as far as constructing an ecological techno-subsystem within Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological System.
While technology and media are not inherently good or evil, their potential impact must be carefully considered. There are obvious benefits that technology can offer to developing children, such as easy access to information, platforms on which they can communicate and an incredible number of educational programs, games and apps. The benefits afforded by these resources, however, must be examined within the context of the startling negative impact that technology and media can have on the developing child.
Major policy bodies and developmentalists have warned of possible detrimental effects of technology on the physical, social, emotional and cognitive development of children. In a 2013 policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lists possible physical risks of large amounts of media consumption, including childhood obesity, aggressive behavior and sleep disturbances. They recommend generally limiting the amount of time children and teens interact with media to a maximum of two hours of entertainment screen time per day, and for young children under the age of two, they recommend having no screen time at all. Additionally, they suggest that there should be a technology and media curfew that is enforced consistently and that screens should be kept out of children’s bedrooms. They further suggest educating parents, teachers and doctors about the risks of media and encouraging parents to establish clear parameters for their children’s media use. It is important to note that in the October 2015 issue of the American Academy of Pediatrics News, Brown, Shifrin & Hill (2015) highlight the fact that policy and research are well behind the rapid technological advancement and that the AAP guidelines must be updated to stay relevant. While the Academy has not yet issued new guidelines, they are in the process of evaluating available research and data to serve as the basis for their new statement, which will more closely reflect current realities of technology use. A special journal issue on the subject of technology and child development, edited by Brooks-Gunn & Donahue (2008), contains articles demonstrating the range of the possible impact of technology on development, including articles on technology’s impact on a child’s learning and academic achievement, aggression, fear, socialization and communication with peers, relationships with parents, emotional well being, anxiety, use of violence and other behavioral issues.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children, in a 2012 position statement on the use of technology and media in early childhood education, echoes the American Academy of Pediatrics position on screen time in young children and stresses that when children do interact with technology it must be in intentional and developmentally appropriate ways that consider the amount of time, the format and, obviously, the content. They warn that the use of technology, even in an educational setting, must not interfere with the child’s interacting and socializing with peers and adults, physical activity and engaging in age-appropriate behaviors, such as play. They further emphasize the need for children to gain digital literacy along with an understanding of responsible use. Digital literacy includes a person’s ability and knowledge as to how to use and navigate technology and to be able to find information and evaluate it and its sources. Beyond this, digital literacy includes knowing how to use technology responsibly. Most importantly, they encourage decision makers to keep up to date with the latest research on this topic.
The human memory system is comprised of multiple components that collectively allow for memories to be made and stored and for learning to take place. After information is perceived, it is held in sensory memory and working memory, where one begins to makes sense of the information. The information then proceeds to short-term memory and, finally, on to long term, or remote memory. Throughout the process, simultaneous attentional and executive control functions support memory encoding. While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into greater detail regarding the components of the human memory system, what is relevant to this discussion is that each component is thought to be susceptible to influences of technology and media (Ziegler, Mishra, & Gazzaley, 2015).
Forms of technology and media are typically not used individually, particularly by digital natives. Instead, multiple forms of media are most often in constant, simultaneous use. This is known as media multitasking. Media multitasking multifactorially increases the risks and concerns of media consumption and, since media multitasking is so ubiquitous, it is heavily represented in the literature (e.g. Baumgartner, Weeda, van der Heijden, & Huizinga, 2014; Bowman, Waite, & Levine, 2015; Cardoso-Leite, Green, & Bavelier, 2015; Junco & Cotten, 2012; Minear, Brasher, McCurdy, Lewis, & Younggren, 2013; Rosen, Carrier, & Cheever, 2013; Rothbart & Posner, 2015) and is the focus of this discussion.
When people multitask, be it with media or anything else, they are dividing their attention. Attention can be thought of as the individual’s cognitive bridge and connection to all they would like to engage in and with all they would like to connect. Similar to any other cognitive resource, an individual’s attention is limited. Therefore, when one is multitasking, one’s attention may be spread too thinly, which can compromise their ability to process information properly and efficiently. One might suggest that an individual’s constant multitasking may actually help develop and refine multi-tasking ability and allow more effective processing as a result. There is literature, however, that suggests that that is not at all the case (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). In fact, constant media multitasking increasingly diminishes general multitasking abilities.
Attention is just one of the cognitive processes that are subsumed under executive control or function. Other included processes are metacognition – the monitoring of one’s cognition –impulse control, decision making, systematic problem solving, allocation of cognitive resources and task switching. Baumgartner, et al. (2014) demonstrates that media multitasking has negative effects on many of these areas of executive function.
Not all research on executive processes and technology and media is negative. For example, research indicates that certain types of media, particularly first player action video games, can help with visual spatial abilities, reaction time, attention (Cardoso-Leite & Bavelier, 2014; Dye, Green, & Bavelier, 2009) and multisensory integration (Lui & Wong, 2012). In fact, specifically designed video games are being used to train older people to lessen the cognitive expenditure on multitasking (Anguera et al., 2013). It is, of course, somewhat paradoxical that the very media that raises concern about negatively impacting attention and learning is the same media that is relied on heavily by neuropsychologists performing cognitive remediation interventions via websites such as Cogmed (similar to the popular site Lumosity). These sites contain game-like tasks that help remediate working memory, attention and executive function. As mentioned in the introductory paragraphs, not all technology and media types are made equal and significant differences do exist between them.
Attention, memory and executive function underlie the ability to learn. A more applied way of examining the effect technology has on these processes is to review the literature on technology and academic achievement. Junco and Cotten (2012), Kirschner and Karpinski (2010); Rosen, et al. (2013) all suggest that media multitasking and its connection to the use of social media have a negative impact on grade point averages. This negative impact on academic achievement is attributed to distractions during studying, lessened cognitive resources such as attention, inability to stay focused on one task as opposed to the need to multitask, poor study skills and spending less time actually studying. While currently there is limited research on academics and social media, it will no doubt be of significant focus in future research.
So where does all this leave us, as parents, educators, community members and leaders? Technology and media are powerful forces that are here to stay and will only continue to proliferate and permeate even more aspects of our lives. They are neither inherently good nor evil, but their very existence has changed child development forever on multiple levels. We must recognize this reality in order to deal with it in an informed manner. While the literature base may not be as robust as one would expect or desire, and while we honestly do not yet have clear and definitive answers as to the full effect technology and media has on development and cognition, there is still much for us to learn from the existing literature and we must be committed to keeping abreast of new emerging research.
It is our responsibility to ensure that the great benefits technology offers do not come at the expense of children’s physical health, at the expense of socialization and interactions with their parents and peers or at the expense of their engaging in age appropriate behaviors. Children’s usage must be developmentally appropriate. On the cognitive front, we do know that media-multitasking comes at a significant cognitive cost in memory and learning processes. While the trend of media-multitasking is certainly going to continue, we have to be conscious of its negative effects and take steps to mitigate them by limiting the amount of time that our children spend engaged in media use. Most importantly, it is not only the parents and educators that must be mindful of the negative effects, it is imperative that children and teens become informed consumers of technology and media. As parents, we must establish clear guidelines for our children’s use of technology by limiting the amount of time they use it, keeping screens out of their bedrooms and restricting use during dinner and other family time. And in particular, given the research concerning technology’s impact on learning and academic achievement, children should not have access to unnecessary technology during study hours. Finally, we must promote our children’s digital literacy through explicit instruction and continued conversations that will lead to responsible use.
Dr. Shmuel D. Mandelman holds a doctorate in Educational Psychology from Columbia University, and received Semicha from Rabbi Dovid Feinstein and Rabbi Nathan Greenblatt.
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