How many minutes a day does your preschooler spend “untethered”?

New baby showing grandma how to use a cell phone.Let me review, for a minute, the e-history of many American children today while you think about your own child.  Is your child’s history similar?  Should it be?

Before children are one-year-old, they are playing in front of a TV and turning their heads occasionally when the music or bright colors attract them.  In their cribs they are listening to music meant to increase their intelligence.  When moms give them milk, they are aware their mothers are not looking at them but rather at a phone or tablet or television.

By two, children have developed favorite television programs, often cartoons.  Their daily schedules might be based on a TV schedule—up at a certain time to watch a certain TV show.  Or Mom might be using the TV as a babysitter while she gets ready for work or fixes dinner.  baby looking at an iPadWhen traveling, children might watch videos in the car on a portable DVD or tablet.  They might see Mom and Dad wearing ear plugs and demand the same.  They might cuddle with Mom and Dad in bed watching a movie.

By three, children are learning how to use some electronic devices.  They know how to turn on the TV and how to operate the remote.  They know how to turn on smart phones and tablets, tapping on their favorite icons to play games.  They can not only play games, but they can excel at them from practice.  They might own some electronic devices meant for preschoolers, and own a dozen or more game cartridges.  Their thumbs might have mastered the directional controller on the keypad.  One-third of three-year-olds have a TV in their bedrooms and watch it two hours a day.

child taking iPad out of toy chestBy four, children might own DVDs and video games designated for little kids.  They might have games for X-box and Wii, or use apps their parents have ordered for their children’s entertainment.  They probably know how to take pictures using a mobile phone and have Skyped Grandma in another city.  With quick dial features on some phones, they might initiate phone calls.

By five, children might have “saved” TV shows to watch at another time.  They might be mastering video games or visiting virtual worlds to play dress-up.  With an adult’s help, they might be learning to read, add, and subtract at online sites.  They might receive birthday cards online.

All this and they haven’t started kindergarten yet.

According to Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of the just published The Big Disconnect, all this electronic activity comes at a price, including

  • A growing number of children with less imaginative and less creative play.
  • Children preferring passive play such as watching TV or using electronic devices where there is a single goal set by the game’s designer.
  • Children with shorter attention spans.
  • Children with less patience learning new skills and with an inability to handle the discomfort of learning.
  • More impulsive children.
  • Children with more difficulty transitioning from one activity to another.
  • Fewer children making eye contact.
  • A growing number of children unable to “read” their own emotions or the emotions of others.
  • Children with less empathy.
  • Children showing signs of addiction.  Dopamine, a neurotransmitter which brings pleasure to the brain, is released when children use tech devices.

And what about reading?  According to The Big Disconnect,

  • Children are born without reading pathways in the brain.  From years of repeated practice, those pathways develop and deepen.  If technology is used instead of an adult and child reading aloud a book together, those circuits in the brain may not develop properly, and the child may not be able to reflect deeply on what is read.  The same thing happens when audio books read aloud to children.
  • High tech use by preschoolers is leading to lower reading comprehension.

Although most of The Big Disconnect does not focus on children’s ability to learn to read, the research presented, as well as the anecdotes from the author’s psychological practice, present a cogent argument that technology is rewiring the human brain, and in particular, children’s brains.

Technology is not only inevitable, but it is useful, says Stein-Adair, author ofThe Big Disconnect.  Yet she admonishes parents to use technology willfully, not absent-mindedly, with young children.  Nothing replaces cuddling with a child, listening to a child, and playing with a child.  Unplug your child to give her a better chance at becoming a well-rounded human being, urges Steiner-Adair.

How about you?  How have you handled technology with your children?  Have you noticed the effects mentioned above?  Are you a teacher of young children who has seen a change in children in the past ten years due to technology?  Let us know what you think.

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