Kids' Tech Habits Need Balance

Facebook, texting, video games, YouTube — are they making our kids dumb? Rewiring their brains? Enabling them or distracting them?

Increasingly, articles are raising alarms about the effects of texting and online media. In a December 2010 Philadelphia magazine article, “Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?” writer Sandy Hingston asserts that today’s youth lack basic knowledge such as how many pints are in a quart, and asks if technology is to blame. She writes that kids can’t remember things because of the constant stream of information from computers, TVs, cell phones and other media.

A recent New York Times article, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” expresses a similar sentiment, questioning whether the constant stimulation from technology makes it harder for kids’ brains to focus, sustain attention and prioritize what to process. The article points to examples of intelligent kids whose grades have plummeted from the constant distractions of technology.

Inconclusive Research

A 2009 study at Stanford University, referenced in Hingston’s article, found that media multi-taskers have a harder time paying attention, controlling their memory and switching from one task to another than people who prefer to complete one task at a time. However, the Stanford researchers acknowledge that their study doesn’t address whether multi-taskers are born with an inability to concentrate — perhaps the reason why they gravitate toward media multi-tasking — or if media multi-tasking is actually damaging their cognitive control.

Some recent studies indicate that video games, often considered time-wasters, may improve mental abilities. Matt Barstead, summer camp program director at Camp Tockwogh in Worton, MD, points to research in the June 2010 Review of General Psychology that concludes playing action video games produces improvements in sensory, perceptual and spatial cognitive functions.

“I believe that kids are actually smarter today,” says Middletown, DE mom Brenda Wilson. “My kindergarteners are doing things academically that I didn’t learn until 1st or 2nd grade. There is just so much information out there and a fast-paced environment makes it harder to focus. Parents need to help kids slow it down a bit and spend their time appropriately.”

What Parents Can Do

Through rules and guidance, parents can help their kids achieve a healthy balance of media use and other activities. “Parents can
empower their kids to be effective technology users,” says Renee Hobbs, PhD, professor of communications and founder of the Media Education Lab at Temple University.  Dr. Hobbs offers tips for parents to help their kids achieve a balanced use of technology.

• Be alert. Parents tend to take a protectionist or an empowerment perspective toward technology,” says Dr. Hobbs. “But don’t get trapped by either thinking.” Both stances are valid at different times, she says. If you’re always trying to protect your child from technology, you may lose the benefits that technology has to offer. But allowing children unlimited access to all kids of media and technology can cause serious problems. Pay attention to technology to give your child access to opportunities that will empower and enrich him, but be vigilant for inappropriate media usage and content.

• Limit screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting children’s TV and entertainment screen time to no more than one to two hours per day. “What we’re discovering is that there are many things kids can’t learn from a screen. They have to learn by doing them. Technology may take time away from other tasks,” says Dr. Hobbs. “Keep media activity in balance with other activities. Kids develop best through experience with the world.”

• Choose wisely. Hobbs recommends using to help make smart choices when determining how your child’s time with media should be spent. Common Sense Media provides reviews and ratings of websites, television shows, video games and movies, and offers tips to help parents provide safe and educational media experiences for their children.

• Do what’s best for your child’s attention skills. It may seem logical to have your child turn off all media when she’s doing her homework to avoid distraction, but, according to Dr. Hobbs, research doesn’t support that notion. “In research studies to see if kids do better homework with different forms of media on or off, there was no difference,” says Hobbs. “Some kids do their best when doing just one task, while others do well with more than one media device on. Discover what conditions are best for your child’s attention skills.”

• Teach media literacy. Club Penguin, Facebook and other social media and online games are designed to be addictive by using intermittent rewards, explains Dr. Hobbs. “Show your kids how a website is pulling them in, manipulating their attention and promoting overuse,” she says. 

“Facebook’s addictive nature come from the activation of pleasure as a result of feeling wanted or desirable. Young people get pleasure from feeling like they are part of a community of friends,” she explains. “Young people check their Facebook 12 or more times a day to feel ‘in the loop,’ to stay in the conversation, so to speak. Because social interaction is so important to teens, this can distract kids from other worthwhile activities, like homework, music lessons, sports, etc.”

It’s good for kids to think about what techniques are being used to keep them attentive, whether it’s the chance of a message from a friend on Facebook or the music reward in an online game. This awareness can help them scale back their media time and gain more balance in their lives.

Susan Stopper is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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