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From TVs to tablets, screens are ubiquitous in our modern society. What effect does that have on childhood development?

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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Sources:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2821208/
http://www.idra.org/images/stories/Computers%20and%20Young%20Children_eng.pdf
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074756321400048X
https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/american-academy-of-pediatrics-announces-new-recommendations-for-childrens-media-use.aspx
https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/Media-and-Children.aspx
http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/5/e20162593
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271946256_Extending_the_Global_Dialogue_About_Media_Technology_Screen_Time_and_Young_Children
http://web.cortland.edu/andersmd/PIAGET/sms.HTML
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2936722/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19473707
[INTRO ♪].

Technology is everywhere these days. And devices like smartphones, tablets, TVs, and computers can open kids up to a whole world from the comfort of their own home.

What’s not to love? Well, according to many scientists, even though there are potential benefits from all this technology, there could be some downfalls, too. Especially when you have too much screen time, too young.

A lot of our modern society is intertwined with technology, and we’re surrounded by screens. Heck, everything from friendships to careers can depend on the internet. So learning how to use tech like phones and computers at a young age might seem like a good idea.

But psychologists are generally urging some caution. Not everything about using a lot of technology can be positive, especially when it comes to early childhood development. Theories of learning in early childhood place a lot of emphasis on interaction with physical objects.

Piaget is one of the most influential developmental psychologists. He called infants ‘little scientists’, and suggested that babies experiment with different objects to learn how they move, what they’re made of, or how they can be used. Then, their brains store all this information away to understand the world and use as they grow older.

However, screens don’t provide the same variety of stimulation to young kids’ brains: they can’t touch, smell, taste, or feel the weight of stuff if it’s virtual. And this can lead to what some psychologists are calling video deficit. Basically, infants are better at learning from real life examples than videos.

And they don’t seem to be very good at transferring things they’ve learned from screens to real life. This idea has been demonstrated by different studies that involve kids imitating actions or doing simple tasks. For instance, in a 2009 experiment, scientists had 15-month-old children either watch someone push a virtual button on a touch screen, or a real-life button.

These buttons were on a shape, like a cow face or a bus, and they caused a noise, like a moo or a horn honk. After watching an adult do this a few times, some infants were given the chance to push a virtual button, and some were given the chance to push a real button. The babies who watched a virtual button be pushed repeated it on a screen pretty easily.

But if they had seen the virtual example, they were less likely to figure out how to push a physical button to make a similar-looking toy make a sound. The opposite was also true. Kids that had seen a real life demonstration were pretty good at repeating the action, but they weren’t as good at pressing the virtual button.

In all cases though, imitating a demonstration meant they did better than coming into the task without any example, which the scientists measured as a baseline. The researchers suggest that this data means that infants are able to learn from both kinds of demonstrations. But their brains aren’t great at translating what they learn between virtual and physical spaces.

So babies might not be getting as much useful information from educational shows as you might hope. In other words, screen time could be eating into time that could be spent physically exploring the world, or learning how to communicate with other people. Because of research like this, organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no screen time for children under the age of two, and to limit screen time for other ages.

It’s important to remember that this research is all pretty new. And it’s not all doom and gloom. For example, a study from 2000 noted that using computers in kindergarten and elementary school children can be helpful with things like creativity, problem solving, and even motor skills.

But these results can vary depending on how often kids use computers, and how they’re using them. So educational psychologists think that technology can be a useful tool to help kids above the age of 3 or so learn. But they also stress educational content needs be suited to their abilities—otherwise, they’ll just be confused.

Basically, you wouldn’t use the same program to teach a three-year-old that you would to teach a seven-year-old, which makes sense. Outside of the classroom, guidelines get trickier. There are a ton of online resources that can enrich kid’s lives.

And some experiences, like being involved in a supportive fan community, can be psychologically and socially helpful. But research seems to suggest that increased screen time still isn’t all fun and games—there are small but consistent associations with things like poor mental health. A study from 2014, for instance, asked 1030 parents about their own, and their child’s, technology usage, food, exercise, and health.

The investigators found that even when sedentary behavior and eating junk food were factored out, technology use was still associated with higher levels of “ill-being,” although the specifics varied between age groups. In this study, ill-being meant factors like psychological issues, behavior problems, attention issues, and poor physical health. And in teenagers, especially, increased technology usage predicted more of these factors.

So technology is kind of unavoidable these days, and kids’ lives are more intertwined with media than ever as they grow up. A lot of this kind of psychology research is new, so we’re learning as our society is changing. But if we can take anything away from all this so far, it’s that moderation seems to be key.

Thanks for spending some of your screen time today watching this episode of SciShow Psych. If you want to help support our show, you can go to patreon.com/scishow. And to keep learning about the brain with us, you can go to youtube.com/scishowpsych and subscribe. [OUTRO ♪].