In a well-known education journal, a computer hardware ad depicts an empty classroom, with computers on each desk. Outside in the background is an empty schoolyard. The children are clustered off to one side, faces pressed against the classroom window peering inside. ‘We make recess obsolete,’ touts the ad. Some might shiver over the scene of empty school yards and silent basketball courts, but most are thrilled by the exciting ‘computer revolution’ emerging in education.
What most parents and educators don’t know is that neuroscientists, academics and health professionals are becoming increasingly alarmed about the developmental effects on children and adolescents as a result of their time in front of a screen. ‘In most cases, screen time is screen time – whether it is in front of a TV or so-called educational computer. It is the medium of the screen itself and the amount of time our children are looking at it that is the subject of increasing medical and educational concern’, said Dr. Aric Sigman, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and author of Remotely Controlled: How television is damaging our lives and what we can do about it.
In addition, the computer’s celebrated capacity as a superior learning tool is being strongly questioned. Research has yet to confirm substantial benefits from learning through computers over more traditional means such as personal interaction, pencil and ruler.
In fact, they may do more harm than good, writes Jane Healy, PhD, educator and author of Failure to Connect: How computers affect our children’s minds. Growing brains have certain sensitive stages of development. These stages require specific stimuli in order to develop. Adolescent brains are in a uniquely critical stage of development until around 20 years of age. Neuroscience suggests strongly that if the child or teenager’s developmental needs during these fragile stages are not met, certain developmental windows ‘close’.
‘Time spent with trivial, violent, or socially isolating technology can distort the [developmental] process,’ says Healy. ‘Young teens should make major emotional / rational leaps in the development of moral reasoning; they particularly need feelings of social connectedness, integrative experiences in the arts and humanities, good models of values systems, and ethical concern.’
But surely working on a computer is more stimulating than just blobbing in front of a television. Not so, says Sigman, ‘Evidence indicates that even this interactive media is associated with limited neurological activity and a reduction in the child’s cerebral blood flow when compared to the child doing very simple repetitive maths adding single digit numbers.’ This limit of blood flow means brains aren’t growing.
In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines about daily media intake for school-aged children: Limit children’s total media time to no more than 1 to 2 hours per day. This includes ‘educational’ media. And many say even that is too much.
However, most children are exceeding this limit, and teenagers, breathtakingly so. In 2005 the Australian Medical Journal raised the alarm over research showing Australian teenagers spending more than six hours a day with various screen media.
With our youth spending already so much time sitting in front of a screen, should our education system provide them with something else? For no matter how clever computers may become, it is the wisdom of the child in front of it that will guide the world forward. Clearly the question is not ‘computer vs. no computer’, but rather, ‘how to wisely integrate new technology into classrooms and homes that embraces children’s optimal development?’