We must engage with adverse effects of technology on children

Vicky Britton explores adverse effects of technology exposure on children and how health professionals are trying to grapple with a problem the extent of which is not yet known.

IT’S too early to examine the long-term impact of technology on our children’s cognitive and social skills, leaving parents in the dark about how technology is changing the way children behave.

One expert in the field believes it is time for the Government to step in and regulate usage.

UCD professor Mary Aiken, advisor to the Europol European Cybercrime Centre, has researched in depth the developmental impact of technology on children — from infant to teenage years. Dr Aiken, who has advised Interpol, the FBI and the White House on cyber-criminality, believes it’s the Government’s responsibility to protect children from the harmful side effects of technology.

“The State has a duty in terms of actually reaching out, educating, informing, and ultimately protecting children,” she says.

“We need structured guidelines for how parents should introduce children to technology and how they can address negative behaviours from an informed scientific perspective.”

Quoting the Canadian forensic psychologist Michael Seto, Dr Aiken says the world is “living through one of largest unregulated social experiments of all time” with regard to technology and developmental impact.

Addiction, lack of empathy, and poor development of communication skills are just some of the side effects which children are currently at risk of due to technology overuse.

Dr Aiken believes the Government needs to invest in ongoing research and initiatives to help the current generation of children grow up safely alongside technology.

“We really need theories of stages of cyber cognitive development,” she says.

“If we think about child development in a real-world context, we have theoretical guidelines; what age a child should be crawling, picking up building blocks, etc. My argument is we don’t have equivalent guidelines in an age of technology.

“What age is it appropriate to give a tech device to a young child? The American Academy of Paediatrics doesn’t recommend exposing an infant to any screen before the age of two — an example of something not widely known by parents.

“The next step is what age should I introduce screens to my child or what age is appropriate to give a child a smartphone?”

In her book, The Cyber Effect, Dr Aiken writes how social abilities, empathy, and problem-solving have traditionally been learnt in a child’s infant years by exploring the natural environment and using imagination to spend time in unstructured creative play.

If a child is cyber-stimulated and not connecting in the real world, this may impair a child’s pre-academic skills.

Developmental delays in attention span, fine motor skills, speaking, and socialisation, along with obesity, antisocial behaviour, and tiredness were possible side effects of technology overuse reported by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Britain.

“From an Irish point of view, instead of trying to tackle the problem when kids are 15 or 16 with aggressive law, it’s far better to consider how we engage with technology from birth,” says Dr Aiken.

“If you were to ask the average teacher or parent, could you advise your 13-year-old of the potential they may have to cross a line in terms of being technically curious online and in terms of breaking the law? I can guarantee that most teachers and parents would not be able to sufficiently advise or educate their kids in this regard.”

Actions to limit children’s screen-time have been taken in countries such as Canada, France, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. Under a new law in Taiwan, excess screen time is now considered to be the equivalent of smoking, drinking, and drugs. In China, parents can send their children to military-style bootcamps to wean them off their internet addiction.

Psychotherapist and author of Cop On Colman Noctor believes we need to look at integrating technology into our lives as opposed to regulation in order to encourage a positive relationship with technology.

“It’s not that you shouldn’t spend more than half an hour a day on it,” he says. ‘It’s about that it should play a certain role in your life. It could be something to complement face to face communication and not supplement it.

“If we go in and talk about online safety, online predators and a selfie-consumed culture, we’re not dealing with it. The education needs to dig deeper and start early in primary school, work its way up and become more intensive as adolescence becomes more complex.”

Ian Power, head of Spunout.ie — Ireland’s youth information website — feels that balance is key. He believes online forums can be a useful outlet for children who are too afraid to speak out.

“As we’re growing up, maybe we don’t realise that an issue that could be bothering us could also be affecting and widely experienced by other young people,” he says. “Often what we find is that across the shared platform a lot of people experience the same things.

“We need to remember to get into a routine of going outside, meeting people, meeting friends, and making sure there are enough things in our routine to disrupt addictive behaviour.”

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