Every generation of parents has its share of challenges and concerns. Our current generation is facing increasing concerns about the amount of time our children spend on electronic devices. While digital tools can pose a challenge in parenting and require careful use, I’d like to suggest that they do not pose a unique parenting challenge. A little wisdom, a little common sense, and a healthy dose of know-your-kid go a long way. I’d like to address some of the concerns I have heard.
1. Too Much Electronic Use Can Damage Your Eyes
Have you heard that if you stare at a screen for too long, it could damage your eyes? Before you blame the beast behind the screen, remember what we were always told as kids? Our mothers were constantly warning us that reading in low light would damage our eyesight!
As it turns out, the danger is eye strain, which is related not to the eye itself, but to the movement of the eye muscles. And guess what? This can occur with any kind of reading – digital or paper. All that is needed is common sense and a natural response to your body’s cues to take a break. And yes, kids may need some parental guidance in order to do this effectively.
Don’t forget that sunlight, as pure and natural as the day is long, can be a danger to your eyes. I share this not to redirect your panic, but to remind us that as long as there has been light, we’ve always had to use common sense about taking care of our vision. Also, you might be interested to know that playing video games can improve vision by increasing contrast sensitivity!
2. Electronics Inhibit Learning
Children who read interactive eBooks and who use laptops in class seem to retain less due to digital distractions. This isn’t surprising. Some children can naturally block out distractions, others can’t. This isn’t a new phenomena with the arrival of digital learning. When I was in school, the teacher sometimes had to move a student away from the window or away from active areas of the classroom so she could focus.
Developing self-knowledge and self-monitoring skills is a part of growing as a life-long learner. And if my children move into careers (including that of homeschooling parent) which involve a large quantity of digital face-time, I certainly want them to know how to manage distractions.
Research also suggests that we recall less of what we type than what we write by hand and that computer note-taking is “detrimental to learning”. I don’t think there is any need to argue with these findings. The more effort our brains need to engage in a task, they more they retain. Students who take notes on the computer often try to transcribe lectures rather than reframing in their own words. More sensory stimulus is involved in paper-pencil writing than typing.
But all of this doesn’t prove that there is something inherently evil about digital learning or typing notes. After all, what we’re saying is that we remember less because it requires less effort. If your goal is to memorize, involve all of your senses – write it in sand with your finger, read it out loud, set it to music. But if your goal is to quickly get information in written form for later reference, technology certainly provides an advantage!
3. Electronics Change Your Brain
One of the articles that has gotten a lot of attention recently calls electronic use a “digital drug“. I was deeply saddened when I read this article because, although it includes true statements, it leaves parents with a fear that electronics are a “silent killer” – in other words, they are causing damage that cannot be observed, predicted or guided by the parent until it is “too late”.
Recent brain imaging research is showing that [electronics] affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control — in exactly the same way that cocaine does.
This sounds truly alarming! Why would we want to expose our children to something that could cause permanent damage? It takes careful reading to see through the alarmist atmosphere of this article. Here’s what the next sentence says:
Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels — the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic — as much as sex.
Why are there similarities between the brain scans of those partaking in drugs, technology, and sex? Because they all raise dopamine levels, “the feel-good neurotransmitter”. Similarities in brain scans do not indicate a correlation in long-term damage, simply a correlation in pleasure-experience! (Just to round out the picture a bit, do you know what else produces brain scans that look like a brain on drugs? The romantic experience of first love and “runner’s high” both have that effect, too!)
All things that we experience as pleasurable have the potential to be addictive. Things that make us feel good have a natural tendency to work their way up our scale of priorities and sometimes to overtake things they ought not to out-rank (like relationships with others and even self-care).
Children need parental guidance in engaging with all kinds of pleasure-creating situations. You wouldn’t put a bag of candy on the table and tell your three-year-old to use her best judgement. She doesn’t have the experience or self-knowledge to do that yet. But if your goal is to grow that self-knowledge and healthy decision making, there has to be engagement at some level. Let’s be careful not to adopt Frog and Toad‘s philosophy that lack of access is the same thing as “will power”.
These are only three of the many concerns I have heard parents, writers and researchers raising. What are your worries regarding digital use in the home, school, or homeschool? How have you addressed those concerns with your family?