The following blog is an expanded version of an article that was published on my university website as one of the regular ‘Expert Opinion’ columns.
Last week week, a lot of media coverage was given to research on young children’s IT use carried out by the US pressure group Common Sense Media and electronic learning experts VTech. Based on a survey of 1,463 parents of children aged under eight years, it was reported that 38% of children aged under two years of age had used iPhones and/or Kindles for playing games or watching films. The study, called ‘Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America, 2013’ also reported that (i) one in three young children use a mobile phone or tablet before they could talk, (ii) 29% of children started using electronic gadgets as toddlers, (iii) children aged under two years spent an average of 15 minutes a day using electronic gadgets, and that (iv) children aged between two and four years spent average of two hours a day watching television. Are these findings a cause for concern?
Over the last decade I have taken part in many radio debates about the influence of information technology on the lives of children. Typically, I am invited onto such programmes to inject a hint of caution along the lines that engaging with technology is OK for children and adolescents in moderation, but that excess involvement with all things electronic may have a downside. To me this seems little more than common sense. As I repeatedly say to people, I am certainly not anti-technology, but pro-responsible the use of it.
Most people will be aware that computers were first introduced into schools in the early-1980s. Since then, information technology has been steadily growing in importance in education rising from a minority option to a compulsory subject in the National Curriculum. Over the years I have watched as many national initiatives have attempted to get children acquainted with IT as early as possible.
No-one can deny that IT skills should be an important part of children’s educational development. However, there seem to be endless numbers of questions that we need to answer before proceeding at the current pace. For instance, should the seemingly growing emphasis on IT be continued at the expense of more traditional classroom learning experiences? Is the idea to increase the amount of classroom work done on computers going to breed a new generation of children who have forgotten how to hold a pen? Should we be introducing children to computers from the earliest age possible? Will computers ever replace teachers?
As a psychologist specializing in the effect of interactive technology in the lives of children, it still surprises me how late in my own life I was acquainted with modern technology. Back in 1982, I experienced my first taste of computers as a teenager playing Donkey Kong on my father’s Commodore 64. It wasn’t until I was 18 years of age and at university that I first did something educational on a computer. The fact that I do not feel I have been left behind in today’s technological generation suggests that children do not necessarily have to begin as young as possible to appreciate the educational benefits of IT (i.e. if I can catch up having not started until I was in my late teens, then there is no reason why others shouldn’t be able to do so).
There is no doubt that children’s day-to-day leisure habits have changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Today’s modern teenager may well have a television, CD player and computer game console in their bedroom and many have online access to the internet at home and at home via smartphones, tablets, and laptops. In essence, today’s teenagers live their lives in a multi-media world and are more “screenager” than teenager. What is the long-term effect of this change in children’s leisure behaviour? Over the last decade there have been countless independent research projects all claiming to give pointers as to the long-term effects of children spending more and more time in front of the screen. A decade ago, eminent psychologists (such as Philip Zimbardo) made the observation that there had been a dramatic increase in shyness rates, a doubling of children’s obesity levels, and that children were spending less time involved in physical activities (e.g. sports) than they used to. I cannot put all the blame for these observations at the door of IT developments, but I do think they play a contributory role.
There appears to be a movement that automatically views IT as the way forward on lots of things (particularly in education), and that the only way of self-betterment amongst our children is through increasing IT use. There is little good reason to assume that more always means better. It is my belief that children at school need an integrated balance between computer-assisted learning (including the development of IT skills), traditional learning methods (paper and pen, the three ‘R’s’ etc.), physical sporting activities, and enhancement of play and peer development. That is not to say that computers and the internet do not have their positive side. Even a quick think on the subject would indicate that computers can:
- Be fun and exciting providing an innovative way of learning
- Provide elements of interactivity that can stimulate learning
- Provide elements of curiosity and challenge which can be crucial to learning
- Equip children with state-of -the-art technology
- Help overcome techno-phobia (a condition well-known among many adults)
- Eliminate gender imbalance in IT use (males have traditionally tended to be more avid IT users)
- Help in the development of transferable IT skills
However, on the down side, (and the last thing I want to be is a kill-joy here) computers (including internet use) can in some cases:
- Be socially isolating (perhaps leading to increased shyness)
- Be socially limiting (perhaps leading to physical inactivity and obesity)
- Be time-consuming, engrossing, and in extreme cases addictive
- Provide easy accessibility to exploitative material (e.g. pornography)
- Provide easy accessibility to adult activities (e.g. internet gambling)
- Provide IT skills that quickly change or become obsolete
- Cause repetitive strain injuries
- Produce unintended “sloppiness” (i.e. computers can correct spelling and grammar)
As can be seen by the list of ‘negatives’, some of the problems are not from the IT medium itself but from what children can do in that medium (e.g., access pornography or gamble at virtual casinos on the internet). Both parents and teachers need to be aware of IT’s limitations and need to put safeguards in place to protect children from unwanted exposure to adult material.
To re-iterate and expand on what I said earlier, there needs to be integration between lots of different activities (not just IT), and there needs to be a balance between IT and traditional education so that they can combine to form a richer experience for the children of tomorrow. IT will continue to have a large impact in the lives of our children. What teachers and parents need to concentrate on is not what to learn but how to learn. This in itself will have an impact on both the role of teachers and the contribution that parents can make.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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