The Positive and Negative Effects of Technology on Kids

Updated on August 10, 2018
VVanNess profile image

Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, blogger at Healthy at Home, and educator. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.

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You probably already have this whole article mapped out in your head. Everyone knows that excessive technology in the lives of children is harmful. Is it what they are watching? Is it the harmful rays coming from the screens of their phones, televisions, computers, and iPads? We also know that technology can be extremely beneficial. As a parent myself, I know that I want my child to be computer savvy. Technology is the wave of the future, right? Kids are getting degrees in technology so they can join big companies producing the next phones, cameras, and recording devices, and tackling even bigger ventures like space travel, drones, pilotless aircraft, and much more.

Did you know that big names, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, won’t even let their children use technology, but are waiting until their kids are older to expose them? It makes you wonder why…I personally love ABCMouse. With it, I can work on my business while the baby sleeps almost uninterrupted, and all the while, my three year old is learning how to spell, rhyme, add, subtract, multiply, and even learning about money and the planets. I know that while he’s busy working, he’s benefiting a great deal from what he’s doing and it shows in our daily conversations and activities.

So why all the hype about technology? How could it possibly be so bad for our children? Is it just too much technology that’s harmful or even just a little? Hopefully, I can answer some of those questions for you. I write this article from a place of my own where we are struggling with balance when it comes to technology in our household with two busy children full of questions. We have ABCMouse on the computer, the occasional video about construction trucks on our phones on Sunday mornings as a treat, and Disney and Bible story based movies on the TV every now and then, but even these have become a problem.

There’s nothing bad he could be exposed to in the selective content we’ve provided him on the occasional basis he’s provided it, but there’s still an issue. When he’s exposed to even a little, our three year old becomes obstinate and unruly. He instantly becomes demanding, with screaming, kicking, hitting, and lots of crying to follow. However, when he isn’t exposed to any, he’s sweet and respectful and wonderful. We’ve tested it out many times now and the change in him is astounding, in both directions. I’m writing this seeking answers to my own questions as well.

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What Qualifies as Technology?

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, technology refers to digital and analog materials, including software programs, applications (apps), broadcast and streaming media, children’s television programming, e-books, the Internet, and other forms of content designed to facilitate active and creative use by young children. This means phones, tablets, iPads, CDs, DVDs, television, streaming video, computers, car monitors, or anything else electronic, even including video calls to grandma. We as a society have become so attached to our technology that sometimes it’s difficult to discern what even qualifies as technology.

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Why Is Screen Time Bad for Young Children?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages screen time all together before children turn the age of two years old. Although, how realistic is this for most of us? Don’t we need to be able to put the kids down for a little bit and wash dishes, fold laundry, or just get a break every now and then? Since they first said this, the AAP has altered their statement to include small portions of interactive screen time with the parent asking questions and getting involved with their children while watching certain programming. Note that they specify that the programming needs to be beneficial for the child, or of some educational nature, not just Seinfeld. “While many apps and television shows are marketed as being educational for young children, countless studies have shown that even the best of them cannot compete with real-life activities and human interaction.”

There’s also the issue of gross motor development at this stage. Small children are learning how to crawl, walk, run, climb, skip, jump, leap, roll over, take things apart, put them back together, fill things up, empty them out, and so much more. Sitting at a computer or television, or playing on a phone or tablet, does not allow children the opportunity to explore and develop these valuable skills. In fact, it does just the opposite. The addictive nature of technology keeps them glued to the screen, and the sheer time spent with screens tends to delay their development.

They’re not developing that whole body understanding of where they are in space, how they’re interacting with materials. For parents who are looking for educational activities for toddlers, playing with blocks actually teaches a more valuable and developmentally appropriate lesson.

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How Technology Is Changing the Way Children Think and Focus

Obviously, there’s a great deal of material that we don’t want our young children (or even older children) exposed to. One story I’ve read told of children getting ahold of Peppa Pig look-a-like videos that showed the characters of this seemingly harmless cartoon cutting themselves, killing their parents in their sleep, and even blowing up their house in the middle of the night using “magic” in the kitchen. One moment you look down and your child is watching Peppa Pig, and the next you’re taking her to the hospital for something outlandish like setting the house on fire.

Although the content is a big concern when considering technology, the bigger concern is that screens are actually affecting the very way their brains grow and develop as well. Preschool and kindergarten teachers report kids who are more impulsive and less able to wait their turn, make transitions, engage actively in learning, and calm themselves when they’ve had a setback—generally work and play well with others.

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What Explains a Child’s Behavior After Using Technology Though?

There are some really scary facts surrounding technology today. “Research has found that an eighth grader's risk for depression jumps 27% when he or she frequently uses social media. Kids who use their phones for at least three hours a day are much more likely to be suicidal. And recent research has found the teen suicide rate in the US now eclipses the homicide rate, with smartphones as the driving force.”

The ability of your children to learn to focus effectively and consistently lays the foundation for almost all aspects of their growth and is fundamental to their development into successful and happy people. With the advent of television and the internet though, children were thrust into a vastly different environment in which, because distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary, and memory is inhibited. Just last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study that said while digital and social media can help early learning, they also come with a host of risks, including negative effects on sleep, attention, and learning, along with a higher incidence of obesity and depression.

Even more unfortunate, with technology and immediate reinforcement of desires within a game, children are not learning to identify or manage their emotions, they are being taught to have low attention spans, and are essentially trained that they can have exactly what they want when they want it. This is how it works in the video or computer game, doesn’t it? Even a short exposure to these “abilities” on any sort of technology can immediately change the behavior of our children and change their outlook for the rest of the day.

For instance, my child may play computer games for 30 minutes, and the time comes to shut it off. He doesn’t want to shut it off. Instead of being the sweet boy I know and love and saying “okay!” and moving on to something else, he gets angry, starts screaming and crying and hits me. Technology also moves much faster than everyday life. So while watching a movie, he may start running around, throwing his brother’s toys away from him, laughing loudly and acting like he just drank a cup of coffee. I think the speed is just addicting and it’s hard to slow yourself down and be calm when just exposed to the fast pace and excitement of the characters on the screen. Even sitting in a grocery basket after watching cartoons in the car is difficult, made worse if the characters were behaving badly.

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How to Avoid Letting Technology Weaken the Bonds in Your Family

In her book, The Big Disconnect, Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair has a lot to say about how electronic devices are changing the lives of children, especially their connection to the important people in their lives. Between children that are always on their tablets or watching television, and parents that are always on their telephones, children are missing a huge part of their development, from vocabulary and communication skills to self-esteem, understanding their emotions and controlling responses, and developing a secure sense of self.

Essentially the relationship and interaction with friends and family members that builds social skills and awareness, important cognitive skills, problem-solving abilities and individual personalities are gone. Have you ever sat at a restaurant and noticed all of the families that are on their phones. From the oldest to the youngest member are all on some sort of technology, sitting at a restaurant, paying good money for an experience, to all be involved in their own worlds, not even aware of another person’s existence. Or are you guilty of being one of these families yourself?

There is even an argument now that some kids who are diagnosed with ADHD may be showing symptoms, instead, of fragmented family life and parental inattention rather than a disorder of their own. Isn’t it worth looking into?

Consider setting some media guidelines for your children, no matter what age they may be, and for yourself as well as long as we are going there. Set limits on when you’ll be on your phone and when you’ll give your children your undivided attention. Think about leaving your technology in the care when you go into a restaurant so that you can model family interaction, show your kids how valuable they are, and engage in family bonding. Plan some family activities that exclude technology like going to the park, having a picnic, playing a board game, or seeing who can build the tallest block tower. You could even make use of books in your home. Wat too many studies show the extreme value in reading to or with your children and discussing the stories with them.

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The Benefits of Technology on Young Children

Benefits! I thought you just said that technology is bad for children. Learning for young children is driven by human interactions, explains Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children & Technology. Pasnik’s research has shown that when kids watch shows like PBS’s Peg + Cat, which teaches early math skills, with parents or caregivers they retain significantly more than when they watch alone. “The more parents were involved and used the strategies, the more likely kids were going to experience the benefits of the media,” she notes.

Watching media together also gives parent and child a shared language with which to communicate when they’re not watching, explains Matt Rouse, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “By really being involved you can get more mileage out of those lessons and adapt and use it in everyday life.” The one-on-one interactions with your child are what’s truly important. They are going to learn from you doing it with them, whatever it is, and walking them through it, rather than simply watching on a screen. You can’t discount how important you are in your child’s life mentally, emotionally and physically.

In addition, technology, when used correctly, can actually have a very positive effect on your child’s development. Studies have found that our ability to identify key information buried within a cluster of characters and visual stimuli (advertisements) are greater. In addition, regular interfaces with technology can lead to improved hand-eye coordination, multi-tasking, and reaction time. Technology is not all bad. It just needs to be controlled.

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Not all technology is bad, and you don’t have to be burdened by the restriction of no technology at all if that doesn’t seem reasonable to you. Other than inappropriate content, which we should all be seriously concerned about, as long as we are responsible in setting limits, making sure to stay involved as much as possible while they are watching, and making sure to make time for plenty of conversation and other one-on-one interaction with our children, there doesn’t need to be any guilt.

Technology can have many benefits for kids when used correctly and under supervision, but many just use it as a babysitter for their kids because they don’t have the time or the interest in playing with their children. I totally understand the argument of using it as an educational tool, and even the infrequent use of it just to get a break so you can do some necessary things around the house. The problem comes with misuse and assuming that an environment filled with technology will prepare your children with the ability to whether the new and growing use of technology in the future.

The bottom line is that too much screen time and not enough other activities, such as reading, playing games, and good old unstructured and imaginative play, will result in your children having their brains wired in ways that may make them less, not more, prepared to thrive in this crazy new world of technology. Let your kids play with their toys, let them go outside, get their imaginations working, and it's okay for them to get bored. They will learn how to play again, I promise. It's good for them and builds their brains. Trust me.

Questions & Answers

  • What are the positive effects of using gadgets?

    Anyone learning how to use a bit of technology will learn specific skills. For video games, it's hand-eye coordination along with responding quickly and making snap decisions. You get reinforcement immediately telling you whether you did it right or not. The benefits vary depending on the gadget you are using. But do these good skills really outweigh the negative ones?

© 2018 Victoria Van Ness

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    • VVanNess profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Van Ness 

      4 months ago from Fountain, CO

      Absolutely. There just needs to be a balance, like ever area of our lives. Thank you.

    • VVanNess profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Van Ness 

      4 months ago from Fountain, CO

      Oh, that's wonderful.

    • dredcuan profile image

      Dred Cuan 

      4 months ago from California

      Personally, I find technology very useful for kids as they can easily learn something interested with only few clicks in their gadgets. However, technology can also disconnect kids from the real world. Since they tend to be more focus on using their gadgets.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Victoria I just had to tell you. Last night we had a break through. My son was racing through the Cat in the Hat. He was to read for 20 and write about it for ten. He was so hurrying to get it done to play and interactive game.

      I tapped him on his head and told him hurrying through did not change how long of time it is. It clicked and we laughed.

    • VVanNess profile imageAUTHOR

      Victoria Van Ness 

      4 months ago from Fountain, CO

      Thank you! Eric, I really think each parent has to apply the concept to their individual child(ren). Just as parenting methods differ in each household, I think the same would apply here.

    • carolinejames profile image

      Caroline James 

      4 months ago from California

      Great article!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I think this is an excellent article about the dangers of too much technology when children are too young. It seems parentd must walk a fine line these days when deciding what is appropriate and what is just too much for your little one.

      We want out children to learn all they can, but where to draw the line is obviously tricky. I think you spelled it out quite well.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      You did real well here. I got a lot out of it and actually found myself applying it to me. No not as a parent but as a user. I am all for hard physical play and interaction. We are task masters in school type studies and my obsession with all things natural. We dole out spiritual stuff though not really religion as while attending we are not dogmatic. Sports a pre-requisate before any sit down time.

      Of course you need to read and write time. At least equal to electronic time. Add math into the mix.

      Creative time from just imagination in the back yard to Legos and helping cook takes time. A chore here and there and bare minimum of suggested sleep.

      I think you see my point. We are too busy for too much electronic time. What would I cut out to make more time? 3rd grade and every child has an Ipad for class.

      I am a little bothered by the negative you mention in child behavior after use. And I wonder what is too young. We went until 61/2 before use.

      Thank you for this very well done piece.

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