At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

To Connect or Not to Connect?

Adults, children, fish, and crows all share an affinity for shiny things. While fish and crows are happy with the simple gleam of a metal object, humans often have a more sophisticated palette for visual objects. My friends are often doe eyed over the latest technological gizmos. Children, once enraptured by a jingling set of keys, now become enthralled by the flashy hypnotic screens of an iPhone or tablet. Is the increase in consumption of shiny digital media by our children a problem?

There is certainly little doubt that humans are growing more visual across the board. We are exposed to more and more visual stimulations online and in digital technology. Our screen options are a lot like our shirt size: small, medium, or large. However we choose to digest this media is really up to us, but unless you’re like a Geico commercial and live under a rock, you’re exposed to some form of digital media.

No matter what we think or how we feel about our media use, screen-time for children is on the rise. According to a recent study published by Common Sense Media 27% of the children between the ages of 0 and 8 spend their screen time on a mobile device, tablet, video iPod system, handheld gaming console, computers, and televisions.

Let’s break it down:

  • Two-thirds (65%) of 0- to 8-year-olds watch TV at least once every day (ranging from 37% of 0-1 year- olds, to 73% of 2- to 4-year-olds and 72% of 5- to 8-year-olds).
  • Forty-two percent also have a TV in their bedroom, and 39% live in a home where the TV is left on all (10%) or most (29%) of the time–whether anyone is watching it or not.
  • Computer use is pervasive among very young children, with half (53%) of all 2- to 4-year- olds having ever used a computer, and nine out of ten (90%) 5- to 8-year-olds having done so
  • Half (52%) of all children now have access to one of the newer mobile devices at home: either a smartphone (41%), a video iPod (21%), or an iPad or other tablet device (8%).

In a recent publication by the American Academy of Pediatrics media use for children under the age of two is discouraged. Overuse of media has been linked to childhood obesity, poor sleep habits, and attention issues in children over the age of two. Research for children between the ages of 18 and 24 use digital media as an educational tool is still inconclusive, but parents should be weary of marketing from companies for programs to children in this age range.

There is a growing conversation and dialogue occurring right now about the balance of digital media consumption and the potential negative impacts that may befall children and the educational benefits for them. Children need to be exposed to other learning experiences that incorporate play and reading.

It’s all about balance–letting kids explore while offering them options beyond the screen. Taking them outside to experience fresh air while allowing them to map their physical world as well as their visual world. We are busy, I get that. The TV can serve as a powerful babysitter, entertainment vehicle, and educational tool. But at the end of the day (or beginning) we must be able to power down and unplug and we can be the best example for our children by limiting our own media consumption.

Let’s ensure a healthy cognitive future for our children with a balanced media diet and enlivening this conversation about getting children away from their screens even for just a short time.

Now, let’s all go outside and play.


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This post is categorized in: Social Media

About Kevin Michael Martin

Proud member of Cohort 11 in the MCDM Masters program, Kevin works as a freelance Digital Media Specialist. Combining film production, web development, social media, and motion graphics to develop rich multi-media content for the web.

12 Responses to To Connect or Not to Connect?

  1. Barbara says:

    Balance is exactly right. In this digital environment it would be naive, and potentially detrimental to completely cut off kids from media.

    That’s why I’ve been happy to see a new trend – many companies and organizations are finding ways to marry offline play with online experiences. For example…

    FunGoPlay has created a toy line and virtual world that the toys connect to. It encourages kids to get outside and play, and then rewards them online for doing so. So far they’ve released a soccer ball and frisbee that each contain a sensor and computer chip that track activity. The more you play outside, the more rewards you earn online.

    Nickelodeon’s Big Help includes four worlds – Environmental Awareness, Community Service, Education and Health & Wellness. Each includes actions kids are encouraged to do offline; complete the action and earn points online. Earn enough points and exclusive digital rewards are awarded.

    Geocaching is another great trend and a unique family activity that combines technology with outdoor adventure. Considered a “game of high-tech hide and seek” kids use the GPS on their mobile device to hunt down hidden treasures.

    It’s no longer as cut and dry as digital vs. the great outdoors. I’d expect that the line will become even blurrier in the years ahead with the rapid adoption of tablet devises. I’m looking forward to see what’s next, and am happy to see this trend growing.

  2. Cherilyn Winkler says:

    Great article! Over the summer I tried to combine some of the great mobile apps with babysitting my nieces. The Google Sky Map and Helicopter Taxi apps were the kid’s favorites. I think the most important aspect is finding that balance between educating children on the proper use of digital devices and instilling in them the importance of playing outside. I feel like a good amount of app developers get this concept and are trying to integrate these ideas into their design. We as adults take our mobile devices everywhere, and soon so will our kids.

  3. Leslie Myers says:

    Thanks for sharing these pretty startling statistics. I, for one, am a believer that the more time spent away from a screen (at any age) the more enriched your life will be.

    Yes, digital media is enabling all kinds of self education opportunities, and in many parts of the world (including the United States) this is culture changing and fabulous. But here in the land of Voltron and Land of the Lost, er, I mean, Yo Gabba Gabba, I feel many forget that digital options are no replacement for human to human contact. There just is no “app” for that.

    It is no surprise to me that media consumption is linked obesity, poor sleep habits, and attention issues in children. The same is true for adults. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE television and often apply pretty low criteria when selecting – but that is only one piece of my daily pie.

    No matter your age, fresh air and exercise should be part of everyone’s lifestyle. Thanks for posting.

  4. Meg Brown says:

    I am a huge advocate for responsibly integrating multi-media, digital consumption into the classrooms. The incorporation of smart phones and tablets is proving to be a powerful tool for several reasons:

    1. Native device functionality on these emerging devices makes education cool. For example, let’s say that children are given two options for learning about the Great Barrier Reef. Option one is to read a chapter in a textbook that includes a dozen beautiful photos and many pages of text describing the marine life. The second option allows them to use a tablet that takes them on a 3-D, immersive tour through the GBR, allowing them to pinch and zoom on sea life and coral structures as well as tap on any object for interesting facts, earning badges along the way for uncovering key facts.
    2. The hand-eye coordination that is essential for operating the technology engages kinetic learners that up until recently have lagged behind their classmates. While they only make up about 5% of the population, it is important that they are equipped with the tools to be successful in the classroom.
    3. The multi-media experience allows teachers to seamlessly merge videos, audio and games into their lectures. It can aggregate quiz and test scores that are multiple choice to reduce paperwork and automate paper. The combination of these things ultimately reduces the outside work that teachers currently do in order to gather all the necessary information, giving them more time to devote to 1:1 attention with their students.
    4. A huge segment of white-collar jobs require advance technological prowess, which will arguably continue to increase exponentially every year. The sooner that we can teach our children how to use technology responsibly, the more prepared they will be in the future.

    Yes, technology needs to be monitored to ensure that it doesn’t simply become a “babysitter”. Parents and teacher alike need to remember that human interaction is crucial to early childhood development, however there is so much good that can come with integrating it into their every day lives.

  5. bizzy says:

    The propensity to turn screens into babysitters, IMHO, is one of the biggest contributors to the disintegrating family, particularly the relationships between parents and children.

    This issue is so interesting particularly because it is so subjective. My conclusion is that it is one more reason for parents to be engaged and deliberate in how they raise their kids. IMHO the greatest value from any screen media comes from how it connects to real life. Movies are only as valuable as what you take away from them when you go back to the real world; games are only as valuable as the skills they teach or the connections they build with other players. Watcing a viral video has some value in the enjoyment i receive at the time, but the greatest value is the interactions around sharing it. The film becomes a conversation starter that instigates the sharing of experiences and building of stronger ties with real world people. But we have to careful to not let the shinies replace those strong ties, and that requires a lot more self-monitoring that most kids are capable of or motivated to do,e even as late as high school and beyond.

  6. Elizabeth W says:

    I’ve often wondered about the programs developing between Apple with its iPad and education, and the real motivation behind them. With so little research done because of the “newness” of the technology, it’s hard to justify using iPads as a primary education tool. But they are so shiny and pretty, plus Apple often provides deals for school districts.

    I worry that the draw of such deals and fun apps and “shiny” technology overcomes educators ability to really analyze the function of such things in schools. Maybe this is the direction education should go, but with so much concern about test scores and American youth lagging behind other countries educationally, I think it’s worth a step back and some research.

  7. Using technology in an educational setting is not only important but tremendously efficient. The points that Meg raises are phenomenal reasons to utilize technology for educational purposes. I am a big proponent for educational media and have created content for some really cool projects.

    Elizabeth raises a big point though, the early developmental research is limited still. Particularly the long term health benefits. Technology is not going anywhere, so we need to be very decisive in our intentions, our design, the time we have children use them, and opportunities for children to engage in physical play.

    No technologist can make an argument to me that some gadget or application is more powerful than experiential play. Piaget, and many psychologists argue that physical play is important for many reasons, the biggest of which is socialization. One of my fears is our penchants for pushing technology as a catch-all solution to modern day problems.

    There needs to be a healthy balance between the technology and real world experience. For instance, how can we develop applications that offer children (or adults) the opportunity to get outside or interact with people.

    Mobile technology, tablets, and GPS systems can be used virtually anywhere. Giving children an application that helps them look up and out to explore and learn about the physical or natural world around them. They have added benefits of tactile experience and visual stimulation.

    A win win for all involved.

  8. @Barbara: I would respectfully disagree with the ‘potentially detrimental’ idea of keeping small children (or even older children) from digital media. Really, it’s virtually impossible for the modern American, but even if it weren’t, the whole modern concept of starting children on a path in the name of education at an early age is flawed in my opinion. I’ve known professional dancers and computer programmers who started in their 20s. Studies such as this one: show that ‘late’ readers are not necessarily disadvantaged, either.

    So if someone wants to join the digital media crowd when they grow up, not toddling with an iPad now won’t be a hindrance.

  9. Roger Collier says:

    I agree with Kevin that there needs to be a healthy balance between technology and real world experience. When I was growing up my parents said the same thing about television. After hours of watching the “Tube” they would announce that it was time for a break. They would turn off the set and send us outside. We would whine and complain but in the end we had more fun and exercise outdoors.

    As my wife Laura and I were raising our kids we moved to an area that didn’t get television reception. For a little while our children sat and watched the “snow” on the screen. Then they got up and went outside to play. They tell us now that those were some of their fondest memories.

    When we had the internet installed there were times when the kids would get glued to the computer for hour upon hour playing games or chatting with their friends. Like our parents we would make the announcement that it was time to go outside and have some fun.

  10. Deric says:

    Not so long ago it was easier for parents to control their child’s media use because then there was just one screen to control. Now, the screens are miniaturised and in the hand of children themselves. And in a scenario where adults are themselves learning digital adoption from their kids it’s easy to who is in control now.

    A recent study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre reveals that while the majority of parents are concerned that digital media is interfering with childhood development, most do not think their children spend too much time on it and researchers say it’s probably because of the private and portable nature of digital devices.

    I recall during my undergad years when our TV had broken and my parents just refused to have it fixed; and did not do so for the next four year till all of us siblings graduated. It was a time when parents could effectively play the role of threshold guardian; today, it’s not so easy. But on the flip side parents and adults reflectively agree that the extent of media exposure today has also contributed to their kids being knowledgeable about certain topics at a higher degree than them when they were that age, all the while not ignoring the importance of balancing outdoor recreation time with screen time is critical. So it comes down to what is the right balance? And the only benchmark a parent has is their own childhood experience.

  11. Laura Smith says:

    Again, I find myself reminiscing about the good old days when you paid one relatively small price for a landline telephone and NOTHING for three, sometimes snowy channels on television, maybe six if you could get the rabbit ears to stay in place just so…. On top of that, the threat of some harm coming to me if I were out riding my bicycle un-chaperoned miles away from home was either not as great, or public information less forthcoming and parental concern ignorantly naïve.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it is easy to romanticize about the “golden age” that never was and forget the reality of whatever era we choose to embellish. However, I do think we have lost something quite valuable – a slower pace. The conclusions about our current state with its alarming statistics coupled with the dramatic increase in childhood obesity and type II early onset diabetes make it all seem so dire. I wonder whether, instead, it is only through an objective, impartial retrospective view that we can really make the call.

    In the meantime, let’s talk about parenting our kids today. First off, I always love it when those who do not have kids offer sage advice to those of us who do. As much as I would love to claim that I am consistent and balanced and do all of the things I would like to be doing – and that I thought I would do before I had children – I just don’t.

    While I have always limited the amount of television in our home, as the kids have gotten older and now have an iPad of their own, I must agree with Derek that I have lost some control. With a full time job and pursuit of a master’s degree, often, my focus is on everything but what the kids are up to: they’re quite in their rooms, I’m not interrupting the peace. In addition, the schools push use of online learning tools for kids at home. My kids knew how to type in the third grade.

    So what’s a busy mother to do? Model the behavior I hope to engender in my kids. Online socializing and gaming is the new reality, but it is only one place and an adjunct to the physical contact with social groups that humans crave. So, I take my kids to ladies luncheons, and coffee (hot cocoa for the kids) dates with my friends. I encourage them to invite friends over for play dates. I get out for a brisk walk every night and invite them to join me. We go on bike rides, and go play in the park, and go camping in the summer. While extremely busy these days, we eat dinner at home almost every night and engage in family conversation at the dinner table. I make them a healthy breakfast every day and pack nutritious lunches. I encourage them to read, and draw, and paint their fingernails, for goodness sake. And, they love Plants vs. Zombies and Angry Birds.

    Kids will be kids and have the same desire for connection and meaning, just as I did – and still do. It is up to me to model, in and among a life that moves at warp speed, how the new technologies can enhance the very real business of what it means to be human.

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