An 8-year-old American child has never known a world without an iPhone. For today’s kids, smartwatches, video chats, and virtual reality aren’t harbingers of the high-tech future that adults have dreamed of for decades, but the simple accessories of an always-connected present. In kids’ eyes, the future is now. The first car they drive will probably be able to drive itself.
The glue that holds this connected world together is, of course, the internet. And while many adults came of age at a time when getting onto the internet involved sitting at a desk and suffering through a minute of ear-piercing squeaks and squeals, children now move through a society where the internet is everywhere—at home, at school, on the street, on screen after screen, day after day.
What is this perpetual exposure doing to them? How does it affect kids’ thoughts, bend their behavior, and alter their development, if it does any of these things at all? In advance of an April 25 Zócalo/UCLA event on the potential pitfalls of kids’ ample time online—“Is the Internet Turning Kids Into Zombies?”—we posed the following question to four experts who think a lot about web use: What is constant internet exposure doing to kids’ brains? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
My concern about children’s internet use is the social cost of technology. My research group has done two studies that directly speak to this issue.
The first, a field experiment, explored the effects of increasing screen-based communication, at the expense of in-person social interaction, on children’s skills in reading emotion from nonverbal cues. After five days of intensive face-to-face socializing without the use of any screen-based media at an overnight nature camp, preteens’ recognition of nonverbal emotion cues improved significantly over a matched control group who had their usual media diet of more than four hours of screen time per day.
The second study was a laboratory experiment. We compared college friends’ sense of bonding and behavioral bonding cues (for instance, smiles and gestures) during different forms of mediated and in-person communication. We found that bonding, as measured by both self-report and nonverbal behaviors, differed significantly across conditions, with the greatest bonding during in-person interaction, followed by video chat, then audio chat (a simulation of telephone), and finally text. Yet despite its negative effect on human bonding, communicating by text is the most prevalent form of communication in this age group.
I can only conclude that there are at least two major social costs in preadolescence and emerging adulthood of the extraordinary reliance on technologically mediated communication: reduced intimacy and reduced sensitivity to emotional cues.
This is a question from the Dark Generation born before the internet.
The internet is here and it’s not going to go away. Children will access it whether we want them to or not. In a few years, the devices with which they access it will be so minimal, we will not be able to tell whether someone is online or not.
There was a time when people thought books, paper, reading, and writing were all bad for children. Our current fears about the internet are similar to the fears of those times. But the generation that is growing up immersed in the internet doesn’t know a world without it. The relationship is symbiotic: The internet lives off them; they live off the internet.
If you think of a “human + smart phone” as a composite creature, it knows just about everything. “Knowing” is obsolete for this composite creature. What will that do to the human brain? I think it will liberate us from knowing all kinds of things just in case we ever need them (this is what existing schooling does). Instead, the brain will learn how to learn when there is a need to learn. How to learn fast, accurately, and critically. “Just in time,” instead of “Just in case.”
A brain that is liberated from “knowing” and in a world where most things are done by machines will have the space to create. And this is what the new generation will do; they will imagine and they will invent. The “Ape that Knows” (Homo Sapiens) will have the opportunity to transition to the “Ape that Creates.”
We should applaud that transition.
The best answer to this question will have to come from future longitudinal research designed to answer it.
In the absence of such research, one can only argue that young children need to learn the real world before they learn about the virtual one. There are critical periods, during infancy and early childhood, within which the brain needs to be stimulated by actual experience if the senses are to develop normally. Virtual experience is no substitute for sweet and sour, soft and hard, pleasant and acrid. And it has to be emphasized that real-world social experience is as important or more so than physical experience for brain development. Isolated sights, smells, and touches light up parts of the brain, but socializing with other people lights it up as whole. Interaction with technology should never substitute for parents talking, singing, reading, and playing with their young children.
After the age of two, once kids have learned how to use symbols, they may benefit from age-appropriate touch screen apps used for only a short period of time. But again, social interactions such as playing, reading, talking, and singing should predominate during the early years.
With any new technology, especially in the absence of research, common sense is often the best guide to its introduction to young children.
Implicit in this oft-repeated question is the assumption that children’s neurological development would otherwise be typical were it not for the mind-altering effects of media. The presumed child in question looks much like the blond-haired, able-bodied boy in this illustration from the children’s classic, The Little Golden Book of Words.
Studies of young people’s everyday internet use and its associated risks and benefits almost never take into account the experiences of “neurodivergent” youth—that is, individuals who diverge from dominant societal standards of “normal” neurocognitive functioning. This includes children, adolescents, and teenagers on the autism spectrum or with ADHD.
The pathological framing of this question negatively impacts neurodivergent youth in at least two ways. First, it devalues the positive outlets they may find for learning, expression, and community through the internet that are difficult to access without it. Second, it distracts us from building a safer internet to support them, seeing as young people with disabilities are disproportionately bullied online compared to their typically developing peers.
In short, instead of the lopsided concern with the internet “changing” children’s brains, we need to take a step back and identify societal biases in how we think about minds and bodies, reflect on how these assumptions inform research questions (and research funding), and ultimately shift understandings of the “normal” brain in order to more fully account for the neurodiversity of all children and their uses of new media.