Research Review: Digital Kids, Part 1

As promised, I have started to review what the research really says about technology’s effects on the brain and child development, and I have some information to share already!

I bought the book Digital Kids by Martin L. Kutscher, MD, a pediatric neurologist who specializes in neurobehavioral disorders  like ADHD and Austism Spectrum Disorder. Here is what I have gleaned from the first few chapters.

People have always declared the “end of the world” at the advent of technological advances. Is the digital technology revolution any different?

Kutscher says, yes, it is different because it is happening so rapidly, and it is affecting a wide range of typical daily activities all at once, especially communication. For example, the average 8-10 year-old is accessing digital technology for eight hours per day. Older children and teens average eleven hours per day. He writes:

Media consumes so much of a child’s life that it is replacing parents and teachers as role models. (p. 56)

Does violence, sexual content and exposure to drugs and alcohol on digital media really influence children and teens?

Kutscher affirms that this is true. In the past, I have read articles by critics that have argued that this is just correlation. For example, kids who are naturally more aggressive and competitive may prefer action games that portray realistic and fantasy violence. The games don’t necessarily encourage aggression. Kutscher disagrees. He points out that we now have a number of longitudinal studies that are pointing to a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to violence, sexual content and drugs and alcohol on digital media (including in song lyrics) and young people’s future behaviors. He describes the research as “close to conclusive.”

Is studying and/or reading on the computer just as effective as reading physical books and the printed page?

No, it is not. The brain relies on certain cues, such as the physical location of text on the page, the sensation of turning the page, the smell of the book, etc., to assist with attention and recall. The text on eReaders is not consistent. Not only does the text change location as you scroll, but it is often interrupted by hyperlinks and other distractions. It may not seem like much, but every time the reader comes across a link or sees an ad, s/he must make a split-second decision about whether or not to click. Those seemingly small distractions can disrupt focus for 1-5 minutes afterward while the reader comes back to his/her original train of thought. Even interruptions of reading physical books by digital media, such as by a text from a friend, can disrupt focus on the content of the book for up to 25 minutes afterward.

Additionally, reading online tends to “reward” shallow reading. As the would-be researcher reads, s/he is given link after link to follow, like a bunny trail that never loops back to the original source. Kutscher quotes a study that found that high school and college students rarely quoted beyond the first three pages of a resource, implying that they simply hadn’t read any further. In a physical book, one is encouraged to “sink” more deeply into the text, to daydream and ponder, and then to go back to the place where s/he stopped and continue along.

So, is it all bad? Should we move to a remote location and ban digital devices from our lives?

No, please do not disappear! Digital media has many positive benefits. Texting, Facebook and other forms of digital communication have been shown to deepen intimacy in real-world relationships. Even seemingly shallow communications have a cumulative positive effect on relationships with people that we already share a connection with. When parents participate with their children online and view shows together, learning is enhanced and parents have the golden opportunity to be a strong positive influence on their kids’ understanding of what they are viewing. Digital technology provides new tools for art, science and business. There is a lot to love!

I thought this quote shared a good principle to lay as a foundation to using digital media in our home:

The digital world is just another environment, where children can do in a virtual (digital) environment the same things they have always done–both good and bad. Parents have the same duties regarding all environments: teaching kindness, setting limits (kids need and want them), knowing where their children are going, what they will be doing, and with whom, etc.  Would you let your child go out into the real world without asking them about their plans?

The quality of the content is more important than the time spent on it. Make sure that your child is prioritizing how they spend their time, rather than setting a timer. (pp. 59-60)

Edited to add: Kutscher also makes a point of saying that time spent with digital technology should not come at the expense of structured and unstructured play time in the real world.

What’s next?

I have only summarized some of the most salient points that I got out of this reading, but there was a wealth of additional information in the first few chapters of Kutscher’s book, including details about our brain’s system of attention, which I will draw on for a future post. The next few chapters get into digital media’s effects on special populations (young children, children with ADHD and children with ASD) and details on what parents can do to make the biggest positive impact on their kids’ relationship with digital technology.

I hope this has given us a good place to start, and I look forward to learning more!

P.S. Based on Kutcher’s research, I structured this text with no hyperlinks and with subtitles in bold as visual “anchors” for ease of reading.

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