Beyond paddling: children and technology

One of the most sensible articles yet published on children, technology and the brain has just appeared in the scientific journal Neuron. It’s titled “Children, Wired: For Better and for Worse” and has been made open-access so you can read it in full online.

You’ll notice a few things that are different from your usual article about the impact of technology: it is written by cognitive scientists who are actually involved in the research; it is published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal; it discusses the whole range of evidence; and it hasn’t made any headlines.

Although it’s an academic article, it’s surprisingly readable and if you’re interested in the area, I highly recommend it.

This is not least because it points out lots of counter-intuitive findings in the scientific literature that are never covered by the people who usually spin the ‘I think it’s trash culture so it must be doing harm’ line.

For example, educational or ‘brain boosting’ applications may actually slow learning while ‘mindless’ video games can have sustained benefits:

Technology specifically developed for the purpose of enhancing cognitive abilities, such as infant-directed media including the ‘‘Baby Einstein’’ collection or various ‘‘brain games’’ designed for adults, may lead to no effects or, worse, may lead to unanticipated negative effects (Owen et al., 2010; Zimmerman et al., 2007). Meanwhile, technological applications that on the surface seem rather mindless (such as action video games) can result in improvements in a number of basic attentional, motor, and visual skills (Green and Bavelier, 2008; Greenfield, 2009).

It’s worth noting that there is good evidence that some educational TV programmes and software have a beneficial effect, but the point remains that you can’t guess the effect from the label.

The article is great at picking up on these complexities and noting the importance of fully considering content and context as well as the way technology delivers it.

My only quibble is a throwaway line where the authors consider addiction to video games and note we need to consider neurological evidence because: “The fronto-striatal pathway, which has been strongly implicated in both drug addiction and behavioral disorders such as pathological gambling is also activated by interaction with certain types of media technology, video games in particular”

As the ‘reward system’, of course, it’s strongly activated in lots of things we find pleasurable or useful – like listening to music, consuming soft drinks, co-operating with others and receiving a compliment.

There is nothing inherently pathological about the activity of this system so we need to be careful that we are guided by what actually impacts on people’s lives and not get too dazzled by the bright lights of brain scanners. But this is a minor point in a overwhelmingly excellent piece.

The take home point is that the ‘technology is damaging the brain / eating our children / harming our culture’ stories are over-simplified to the point of absurdity. No-one could get away with a scare story about the whole of ‘transport’ but you can with ‘technology’ because it plays to our anxious stereotypes.

This is not to say that there aren’t some genuine areas of concern but these are little different from every other media that has come before: violence has a small but significant effect on aggression and doing anything to the detriment of a balanced education and active life will affect school progress and health.

Link to Neuron article with full text pdf link (via @bradleyvoytek).
Link to DOI entry.

9 thoughts on “Beyond paddling: children and technology”

  1. “The take home point is that the ‘technology is damaging the
    brain / eating our children / harming our culture’ stories
    are over-simplified to the point of absurdity. No-one could
    get away with a scare story about the whole of ‘transport’
    but you can with ‘technology’ because it plays to our
    anxious stereotypes.”

    Agreed! It irritates me to no end when people talk about
    the effects of ‘technology’ as a catch-all phrase.

    Unfortunately this article “Children, Wired: For Better
    and for Worse” does exactly that. Their basic argument
    is that the ‘technology’ medium doesn’t matter, that it
    is the content that matters.

    That argument is just plain wrong.

    For example, reading:

    “Carnegie Mellon University scientists Timothy Keller
    and Marcel Just have uncovered the first evidence that
    intensive instruction to improve reading skills in young
    children causes the brain to physically rewire itself,
    creating new white matter that improves communication
    within the brain.”

    For example, video games:

    “Mayo Clinic researchers found that healthy, older adults
    who participated in a computer-based training program to
    improve the speed and accuracy of brain processing showed
    twice the improvement in certain aspects of memory,
    compared to a control group.”

    For example, TV:

    “Aim:  There is increasing concern about the behavioural
    and cognitive effects of watching television in childhood.
    Numerous studies have examined the effects of the amount
    of viewing time; however, to our knowledge, only one study
    has investigated whether the speed of editing of a programme
    may have an effect on behaviour. The purpose of the present
    study was to examine this question using a novel
    experimental paradigm.
    Methods:  School children (aged 4–7 years) were randomly
    assigned to one of two groups. Each group was presented
    with either a fast- or slow-edit 3.5-min film of a narrator
    reading a children’s story. Immediately following film
    presentation, both groups were presented with a continuous
    test of attention.
    Results:  Performance varied according to experimental
    group and age. In particular, we found that children’s
    orienting networks and error rates can be affected by
    a very short exposure to television.
    Conclusion:  Just 3.5 min of watching television can
    have a differential effect on the viewer depending on
    the pacing of the film editing. These findings highlight
    the potential of experimentally manipulating television
    exposure in children and emphasize the need for more
    research in this previously under-explored topic.”


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