For most Americans of any age, every day brings a flood of information, sound and images delivered to us through some form of technology. Undeniably, we are part of the digital age and the age of information. Adults may be savvy enough to use technology and media in ways that mostly benefit them, but what about children? Since technology is clearly here to stay, parents and teachers may wish to educate themselves on how to minimize potential harms and maximize the benefits technology use can offer to kids.
The notion of the couch potato hints at just how powerful technology's influence can be. Particularly when presented on a screen, material — especially entertaining material — can be absolutely engrossing, encouraging kids to stay parked in front of a television, tablet, or other digital device. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that, on average, kids spend about seven hours every day exposed to media. Jim Taylor of "Psychology Today" notes that growing up with technology may be actually changing the way kids' brains develop and how they think. For example, because so much information is available so quickly online, children may be gaining skills in rapidly finding and skimming information, in contrast to their parents' skills with focusing closely on one particular book or other source of information.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that too much exposure to media can result in attention issues. When compared to the act of reading, for example, exposure to television requires less imagination, and the stimulation children receive often comes in short chunks broken up by commercials. So kids don't have to stay focused for long periods of time, perhaps training their minds to develop shorter attention spans. Excessive exposure to media through technology may also be linked to problems at school and to obesity. The relative newness of technology adds to these concerns since we can't look back at how exposure has affected prior generations.
Despite these risks, children may actually benefit in some ways from using technology. With the wealth of information available online any time, kids who are adept at searching the web may hone research skills and the ability to know where to find answers quickly, which can be as valuable as knowing the answers themselves. Similarly, kids can learn to differentiate useful information from the clutter of ads and personal opinions that bombard the internet every day. If parents get involved by watching a TV show with their child, for example, they have an opportunity to talk to kids about advertisements and the show's content. This can help kids to build media literacy skills so they can think critically about what they see when they are using technology.
What we can do
Since technology is clearly here to stay, parents and teachers can help children learn to use it appropriately. The key term is "balance." The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a maximum of two hours of exposure to media per day for kids, and no screen time at all for children younger than two. Books, board games, and time outside can be substituted for screen time. Active play has the side benefit of providing some exercise. Children need unstructured time, too, to encourage the growth of imagination. When it is time to settle in front of a screen, high-quality educational content is available, and that should be the first choice. Through offering children a balance and staying engaged with what they see on television or online, we can help kids to reap the benefits that technology offers.