The sight of a toddler in zombie-mode in front of a screen has become so common it’s scary. And there are enough reasons to get worried about it.
Research has shown that the fastest synaptic growth occurs between prenatal period and three years of age – one million new neural connections a second – with growth then gradually slowing down.
It is, therefore, no secret that children are smart; which is why early childhood is the best possible time to learn a second language.
But when the second language is purely related to consuming technology – hitting “next” on Youtube or searching for games on the App store – we need to ask ourselves hard questions.
Are our children addicted to their gadgets? How are we enabling that behaviour and how is this impacting their development?
According to Robert Lustig, author of The Hacking of the American Mind, our brain circuitry responds to technology the same way it does to addictive substances – by causing an excessive release of dopamine.
The vulnerability of children is compounded by the fact that unlike adults, their pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain linked with complex cognitive behaviour and decision-making, is still developing.
In addition, when a child spends the majority of their day in front of a screen, consuming media or playing video games, they become totally disengaged from their three-dimensional world.
That also limits their opportunities for learning new skills especially through hands-on exploration.
It might also pose health risks as children are less likely to engage in physical activities and are thus more prone to weight gain.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed strong and consistent association between use of devices and reduced sleep quantity and quality.
Another impact may be the hindering of social skills as children interact more with online characters than their friends offline.
What is most likely to happen is that they become more attached to fictional characters or friends whose screen names and avatars they’re very familiar with but whose real-life identity they have no idea about.
This could present a risk as the “10-year-old friend” they play video games with online might actually be a 40-year-old person stuck in their mother’s basement with evil intentions.
What’s worse is how the people behind these tech products use the science of psychology to design products that are habit-forming and addictive as Nir Eyal elaborated in his book Hooked.
This is done by small things like adding variable rewards instead of predictable ones to spark interest through novelty, like the endless “feed” or “timeline” that have become the signature of products such as Facebook or Twitter. Another example is autoplaying the next video just to maximise the time users spend on Youtube or Netflix.
So while there are regulations and age-limits for other addictive behaviours such as smoking or drinking, the consumption of tech products is still unregulated with tired parents using their smartphones and TV’s in lieu of a babysitter after a long stressful day at work.
This is not to say that all tech products are evil. On the contrary, some apps and games may provide an educational value such as teaching children basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Other apps enable creativity through engaging with the app by colouring or coming up with their own designs for something.
Also, parents may use this addiction to push other activities on their children.
For example, some parents might tell their children that they can’t have any screen time until they’ve finished swimming or soccer practice for the day. That way, the craving for using tech is leveraged to reinforce other good habits within the child.