Computers, Children and You

Computers, Children and You June 19, 2013

Tech companies are targeting children from birth. Long before children can encounter the silences and subtleties the world offers we are handing them to the tech gods by accepting the message that mediated reality is good for children. Industry opinion on the issue of exposing children to a media/tech “reality” should carry about the same weight as studies by the oil conglomerates “proving” that there’s no such thing as global warming.

For now it’s up to parents and grandparents to do what is intuitively best for children: refuse to hand them over to the tech/media profiteers. Connect them to the joy of hands-on encounters with our glorious planet.

According to the big tech corporations, what many schools lack is a computer on every desk and a cell phone loaded with apps in every child’s hand. And governments and educators are going along. For instance in Britain government has launched programs to solve that country’s downward educational spiral with – yet more computers.

As Julie Henry, Education Correspondent to the Daily Telegraph, noted in “Ban Computers from Schools until Children Reach Age 9, Says Expert” (June 13, 2010), the introduction of technology into classrooms is actually damaging young children. The article quoted Dr. Aric Sigman, a psychologist and author, saying that one result of the “nappy curriculum” (diaper curriculum) that the government is foisting onto the public, “is that it dictates that toddlers should be introduced to computers as early as 22 months of age [and this] is subverting the development of children’s cognitive skills.”

Speaking to a conference of childcare specialists gathered to oppose the British government’s efforts to introduce yet more tech items into classrooms for toddlers, Sigman said that children need to use the three dimensional real world to learn: “There is evidence to show that introducing information and communication technology in the early years actually subverts the very skills that Government ministers said they want children to develop, such as the ability to pay attention for sustained periods… The big problems we are seeing now with children who do not read, or who find it difficult to pay attention to the teacher … The rationale behind [giving toddlers computers] is that children are interested in these things… Children might be interested in alcohol, hand guns and pornography – that doesn’t mean we should give them access… Just because children are interested in something, it does not mean by any stretch of the imagination, that it is in their interests to expose them.”

After conducting a national survey of parents of children ages zero months to six years, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that media use has become an “integral part of daily life.” Young children are being unthinkingly exposed to screen media – TV, various tech pads, cell phones and the rest, as early as six months. As an article in the New York Times (“Parents Urged Again to Limit TV for Youngest,” October 18, 2011) noted:

“Parents of infants and toddlers should limit the time their children spend in front of televisions, computers, self-described educational games and even grown-up shows playing in the background, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned. Video screen time provides no educational benefits for children under age 2 and leaves less room for activities that do, like interacting with other people and playing… There is no such thing as an educational program for such young children, and that leaving the TV on as background noise, as many households do, distracts both children and adults. ‘We felt it was time to revisit this issue because video screens are everywhere now, and the message is much more relevant today than it was a decade ago,’ said Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Tex., and the lead author of the academy’s policy, which appears in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics.”

A visit to the commercialized corporate American playground of Times Square provides a metaphoric illustration of the way images are used today – simplistic texts, bright images, commercials and pop-ups, intruding and changing the way we see the world. Over-stimulated brains (with short attention spans) have tried to adapt the process of making sense of this disconnected data. Children raised in this Times Square of the mind are subjected to the commercial torrent of data and form their brains accordingly, as one study, published as “Associations Between Content Types of Early Media Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems” (Pediatrics, May 2007), Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD, Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH, found. The study discovered that the association between early television viewing and subsequent attention problems is specific to TV (or computer) viewing before age three. The quantity of stimulation that young children are exposed to carries “lifelong cognitive effects.” And Christakis and Zimmerman found that the more television young children watch, “the more television they will demand to watch in subsequent years.”

In 2001, the Walt Disney Company purchased a company known as Baby Einstein. By 2003 it was estimated that one out of every three American children had watched a Baby Einstein video. Baby Einstein, which was advertised as “appropriate for children ages zero to two years old,” was sold to Disney for more than four hundred million dollars. There’s big money in talking parents into using a media product as a baby sitter. Following Baby Einstein’s lead, other companies such as Brainy Baby, Baby Bumblebee, and Baby Pro Sports emerged to cash in on a market share of selling tech addiction to children via ignorant parents. Sesame Street cashed in and produced “infant-oriented” programming.

In a study published in the article, “Television and Very Young Children” (American Behavioral Science, January 2005), Daniel R. Anderson (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) and Tiffany A. Pempek (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) recommend that children younger than two years of age not ever be exposed to any television or screen viewing whatsoever. They point out that background TV is also a disruptive influence. Second hand TV/computer screen pollution is distracting and as bad for kids as direct viewing. It distracts from conversation, personal contact and the ability to concentrate on meaningful and creative projects. Anderson and Pempek chose the term “video deficit” to describe what happens to infants “learning” from screens.

A similar study (Krcmar, Grela, and Kirsten. 2007) found that toddlers learn more vocabulary from adult speakers than from programs such as Teletubbies. Researchers concluded that young children do not know where to focus their attention when presented with programs of highly charged stimuli. The sensory overload is too much for toddlers to handle. Pediatricians in Japan (Okuma and Tanimura, 2009) declared that delayed language development and impaired social skills such as not speaking, lack of expression, or eye contact are found in young children with heavy television and video and computer watching habits. The study found that young children who are exposed to screen watching were more likely to show delayed language development. They also found that children who watched television alone in babysitting mode were more likely to experience delayed speech. Instead of admitting the intellectual bankruptcy we’re flirting with, we are medicalizing what are in fact multiplying evidences of a profound spiritual problem.

A New York Times report, “A.D.H.D. Seen in 11% of U.S. Children as Diagnoses Rise” (By Alan Schwarz and Sarah Cohen, March 31, 2013) noted that one in five high school age boys in the United States and eleven percent of school-age children over all have received a “medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These rates reflect a marked rise over the last decade and could fuel growing concern among many doctors that the A.D.H.D. diagnosis and its medication are overused in American children.”

The figures showed that an estimated 6.4 million children ages four through seventeen had received an A.D.H.D. “diagnosis” at some point. About two-thirds of those with a current diagnosis received prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall, which can lead to addiction, anxiety and occasionally psychosis. “Those are astronomical numbers. I’m floored,” the Times quoted Dr. William Graf, a pediatric neurologist in New Haven and a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, as saying. He added, “Mild symptoms are being diagnosed so readily, which goes well beyond the disorder and beyond the zone of ambiguity to pure enhancement of children who are otherwise healthy.” According to Dr. Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the author of “How Doctors Think.” “There’s a tremendous push where if the kid’s behavior is thought to be quote-unquote abnormal — if they’re not sitting quietly at their desk — that’s pathological, instead of just childhood.” The airwaves and media are a vast drug emporium that shills for drugs to fix everything from weight loss to declining libido. That doesn’t include the exploding con game for nip and tuck, and youth by injection that produces an authentic look of youth about as well as the Siegels managed to reproduce Versailles in sheet rock taste-in-your-ass aesthetics and steel beams in Florida.

The fate of the medicated young people of America seems to prove that the human factor in humans is becoming a “medical condition.” Grief and loss, even childhood cases of fidgeting are medicalized while grandma, mom, and even the baby sister line up for Botox and fillers. Maybe that’s because having failed our young, we look to pills the way we look to electronic distractions to fix what we broke through intention and downright stupidity.

We’ve become divorced from the ordinary experiences of life. We’re uncomfortable with the complexity and suffering that goes with the embrace of our humanity. And we look for the quick tech fix. The kids are failing? More computers on every desk! They can’t read? Provide a soundtrack so school is more entertaining! They’re still unable to study? Give them pills!

Many studies have concentrated on television watching that, these days, is just the tip of the viewing iceberg since the tech industry has vastly and aggressively expanded its efforts to induce parents to hook their children on many more types of screen watching from iPad, to cell phone, to smart-phone technology. The likelihood of an entirely mediated second hand and thus second rate, experience of reality for children through screens – sold to them by tech companies masquerading as child development or educational companies — has become the new normal.

In an article published in the New York Times (March 23, 2013) “Your Phone vs. Your Heart,” Barbara L. Fredrickson (professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), notes that new research she and her colleagues published in the journal Psychological Science suggested that one measurable toll of the use of electronic media is on our biological capacity to connect with other people. “Our ingrained habits change us,” she writes, “neurons that fire together, wire together, neuroscientists like to say, reflecting the increasing evidence that experiences leave imprints on our neural pathways, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Any habit molds the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit… In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa.”

The human body — and thereby our human potential — is amenable to change. Fredrickson writes that the field of social genomics, made possible by the sequencing of the human genome, tells us that the ways our and our children’s genes are expressed at the cellular level is responsive to habitual experiences and actions. Fredrickson concludes her article, “New parents may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions — like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child — leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression. When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.”

According to a long report in The Atlantic magazine “The Touch-Screen Generation” (by Hanna Rosinmar, April, 2013), young children – including toddlers — are spending more and more time with digital technology. Thousands of apps “appealing to kids just out of diapers” are released every year. The article described a gathering organized by Warren Buckleitner, a longtime reviewer of interactive children’s media who “brings together developers, researchers, and interest groups—and plenty of kids,” some still in diapers, to promote high tech to tots. At this marketing gathering the reporter noticed that the children who had been handed the iPads “mostly looked down, at the iPads and other tablets displayed around the hall like so many open boxes of candy. I walked around and talked with developers, and several paraphrased a famous saying of Maria Montessori’s, a quote imported to ennoble a touch-screen age for kids:

‘The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.’”

The reporter asks: “What, really, would Maria Montessori have made of this scene? The 30 or so children here were not down at the shore poking their fingers in the sand or running them along mossy stones or digging for hermit crabs. Instead they were all inside, alone or in groups of two or three, their faces a few inches from a screen… On an old oak table… a giant stuffed Angry Bird beckoned the children to come and test out tablets loaded with dozens of new apps. Some of the chairs had pillows strapped to them, since an 18-month-old might not otherwise be able to reach the table, though she’d know how to swipe once she did.”

The article notes that parents have begun accepting the digitally mediated “reality” their children are having foisted on them and even “began giving their devices to their children to mollify, pacify, or otherwise entertain them.” The article notes that by 2010, two-thirds of children aged four to seven had used an iPhone, “according to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which studies children’s media.” The vast majority of those phones and tech devices had been lent to the child by a family member; the center’s researchers labeled this the “pass-back effect,” a name that captures well the reluctant zone between denying and giving.

The market immediately picked up on this pass-back effect, and the opportunities it presented to hook kids on mediated reality and thus turn toddlers and infants into a cash machine. “In 2008,” the article notes, “when Apple opened up its App Store, the games started arriving at the rate of dozens a day, thousands a year. For the first 23 years of his career, Buckleitner had tried to be comprehensive and cover every child’s game in his publication, Children’s Technology Review. Now, by Buckleitner’s loose count, more than 40,000 kids’ games are available on iTunes, plus thousands more on Google Play. In the iTunes ‘Education’ category, the majority of the top-selling apps target preschool or elementary-age children.”

Some parents are not ignorant or lacking in creativity but they are hypocrites. The New York Times published a story about how some of the top executives in Silicon Valley send their own children to a school that does not allow computers. In “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute” (October 22, 2011) the Times revealed that the leaders who run the computer business demand a computer-free, hands-on approach to education for their own children.

As the article noted, the chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom Waldorf school in Los Altos. So do top employees and owners of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. Blackboards, not laptops are what the billionaire makers of laptops for other children demand for their own. These elite computer industry savvy parents want to delay their children’s engagement with technology. “The school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud, clay, walks in nature, books, books and more books. Not a computer to be found! No screens at all.” They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school frowns on their use at home and asks parents to comply.

As the Times noted, research suggests that schemes to expand home computer access will lead to wider gaps between test scores of advantaged (no computers) and disadvantaged (tech hooked) students. These conclusions were confirmed by a study in 2009 that found education was being disrupted by “technology obsession.” Researchers at the Cranfield School of Management found that increased use of the internet and mobile phones were undermining pupils’ capacity for independent study and promoting poor grammar. Yet many mothers and fathers believe they are failing as parents if they’re unable to provide state-of-the-art computers and tech toys, pads, phones and the rest for sons and daughters.

Meanwhile schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with even more computers, and many policy makers say high tech is the best thing we can do for children. “But” as the Times noted, “the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.”

The Waldorf method is nearly a century old, but its foothold among the digerati puts into sharp relief an intensifying debate about the role of computers in education. “‘I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,’ said Alan Eagle, fifty, whose daughter, Andie, is one of the 196 children at the Waldorf elementary school; his son William, thirteen, is at the nearby middle school. ‘The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous,’ Mr. Eagle said. He knows a bit about technology. Mr. Eagle holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, where he has written speeches for the chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. He uses an iPad and a smartphone. But he says his daughter, a fifth grader, ‘doesn’t know how to use Google,’ and his son is just learning.”

Three-quarters of the students at the school have parents with a strong high-tech connection. Mr. Eagle, like other parents, sees no contradiction. Technology, he says, has its time and place: “If I worked at Miramax and made good, artsy, rated R movies, I wouldn’t want my kids to see them until they were 17.” The article quoted Paul Thomas, a former teacher and an associate professor of education at Furman University, who has written twelve books about public educational methods. He says, “A spare approach to technology in the classroom will always benefit learning. Teaching is a human experience. Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”

The article concludes: “And where advocates for stocking classrooms with technology say children need computer time to compete in the modern world, [these] Waldorf parents [in other words some of the top tech leaders in the world] counter: what’s the rush, given how easy it is to pick up those skills?”
In the Atlantic article I already quoted, the reporter discovered the same type of double standard the Times exposed: “I fell into conversation with a woman who had helped develop ‘Montessori Letter Sounds,’ an app that teaches preschoolers the Montessori methods of spelling. She was a former Montessori teacher and a mother of four… What [computer] games did her kids like to play?, I asked, hoping for suggestions I could take home. ‘They don’t play all that much,’ [she answered]. ‘Really? Why not?’ [I asked] ‘Because I don’t allow it. We have a rule of no screen time during the week… It can be too addictive, too stimulating for the brain.’”

The technologies we’ve developed to save time and diminish our anxieties have cost us time and exacerbated our anxiety. Adults have a hard enough time trying to figure out how to give ourselves a break before the busyness of our lives consumes us. Foisting this burden on children before they’ve even figured out what they like or who they are is a sin. Our whole society has been reorganized around a kind of collective tech insanity. There seem to be less and less places for us to think in. This has to do with technology but it’s also a spiritual failure.

Culture is a thin veneer. Manners are an even thinner veneer moderating our instincts that are more chimp-like than human.

Evolutionary development of cooperation and social empathy is new. But just under the surface we’re as selfish and mean as ever. Put us in an environment lacking accountability – like the internet – and stand back and see how the conventions of civility hold up. They don’t, as anyone like me who lives and dies by my writer’s platform online, knows. As one of the Huffington Post’s first and most read bloggers – I’ve written over a thousand blogs for Huffington, Alternet, Patheos, Salon, I’ve watched the quality of the responses steadily decline. Not only have manners gone out the window, but also even the pretense of a good use of the English language. And that’s on the “serious” political sites. Dip into the underworld of the far right sites, hate groups, sites dedicated to harassing women and it seems like slime is literally oozing from the screen.

There are worse things than being temporarily un-cool because you’re the only kid without the latest tech whatever in your schoolbag or pocket. The key for parents isn’t to “win” through screaming matches with twelve year olds. The battle to delay a child’s plunge into 24/7 connectedness is won by feeding a child’s brain with the good stuff from day one before they fall into the fast flowing tech tide.

The key is to not use tech devices as a baby sitter but to delay the habit and get children used to direct encounters with reality. A child who has grown up on the best of art, music, books, nature, creativity and undistracted parental attention isn’t guaranteed a good future, but at least she will have a context from which to judge what’s being pushed on her by her peers and the tech industry later. She might even be polite, able to speak her own language and have an attention span that was nurtured by the enjoyment of the world in real time instead of in edited bits and pieces.


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