Does Technology Have a Negative Effect on Children?
For over a decade now, society has seen massive breakthroughs in technology. With those advances also come concerns about how technology affects humans—especially children and their development.
At Pinwheel, we not only want to answer the questions,
“Does technology have a negative effect on society? More specifically, does it have a negative effect on children’s social development and social skills?
But we also want to explore how we can encourage children to develop healthy tech habits.
In this article, you will learn that there are three types of connection and disconnection that happen in technology. Furthermore, you will be equipped with the brain-science-backed lingo to make these decisions yourself, without having to get a therapist's license.
What the Research Really Says
Let us be frank: there is a lot of research out there on child development and technology.
Some of the research is clickbait headlines relying on cherry-picked research articles. Some are legitimate research-backed and peer-reviewed studies, and some are vacuum studies that unreliably test and confirm their hypothesis that A leads to B, e.g. increased cell phone usage leads to depression.
You might be wondering why there are not more conclusive answers and reliable data out there. Especially given the fact that smartphones have been around for more than a decade. One generation has already grown up with them, and one is currently growing up with them.
Here are the facts:
It is quite difficult to prove adirect correlation between technology and child development. Right now, there are just too many factors when it comes to these studies to truly prove direct correlation, much less, causation. For instance, let’s talk about Dr. Jean Twenge’s work and studies. Dr. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. She wrote the book, “iGen.”
Dr. Twenge argues that a direct correlation exists between children’s phone usage and their mental health. In Twenge’s article forThe Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” she states, “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all non-screen activities are linked to more happiness.”
This is a blanket statement. Wired magazine analyzed the data sets Dr. Twenge and her colleagues used. They found that from the “two nationally representative surveys of hundreds of thousands of kids, they calculated that social media exposure could explain 0.36 percent of the covariance for depressive symptoms in girls.” Meaning 99.64 percent of the group’s depressive symptoms had no connection to social media. The data on boys wasn’t even conclusive enough to publish.
Correlation Does NOT Mean Causation
To further reveal to you that correlation does not mean causation, take a look at some of Tyler Given’s Spurious Correlations graphs below:
Obviously, divorces in Maine are not caused by the consumption of margarine, and railway accidents are not caused by oil imports from Norway. Just two examples of how correlation does not prove causation.
Why the Tech Panic Button?
1. Technology Isn’t Going Anywhere
Since technology and the digital world are here to stay, sociologists, psychologists, journalists, teachers, and parents all want to know how technology is affecting individuals and society at large.2. Romanticizing the “Good Old Days”
Another reason we as a society are heavily invested in this correlation is because of human nostalgia. If we look at history there are always cases of people lamenting the “good old days,” and worrying about the future. You’ve heard the saying, in some form or another, “Back in my day…we did A, B, C. Your generation is doing X ,Y, Z. Plus, it’s all wrong.”
What is important now is not grieving the past, but looking after the next generation. You can support future generations by informing yourself of what concerns around technology are legitimate. It is also equally important to avoid participating in the generational finger-wagging.
So, to achieve this ourselves and to assist you, we wanted to understand the research first to give you a glimpse into what actually matters when it comes to child development and technology.
Here’s the deal:
Connecting vs Disconnecting
To understand the research behind screen time and children’s development, you need to have a base knowledge of “connecting” vs “disconnecting”.
Connecting comes in three forms:
Connection With Others Without Technology
Connecting with others without the use of technology occurs when you consciously choose to put away your phone or other tech devices so you can be in the moment. Connecting to others without technology can be done anytime you’re talking with an acquaintance, mentor, friend, or family member, or even a stranger.
Connection With Others Using Technology
Connecting with others through the use of technology is when a person uses a tech device to interact or engage with another individual.
Examples of using technology to connect with others:
- Having face-to-face meetings via Zoom or Google Duo.
- Playing video gameswith friends and family members; better if it’s done in-person.
- Playing a mobile board game such as Scrabble or chess with a friend and chatting on the side.
Connection With Oneself UsingTechnology
Connecting with yourselfthrough the use of technologymeans being aware of yourself and how much you use technology. This quote about self-regulation from Dr. Mike Brooks explains how teaching kids self-regulation is a skill they will use for the rest of their lives; this lesson should be applied to technology.
“Ultimately, one of the goals of parenting is to help children learn self-regulation. After all, they will eventually leave our active care, and we want them to go with the values and skills to manage their lives effectively.” – Dr. Mike Brooks, Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World
Different Ways Technology Encourages Disconnecting
But wait, what about the ways technology disconnects users?
| Disconnecting is done in two ways:
Examples of using technology to disconnect:
- Scrolling through a social media feed on platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.
- Playing video games on your phone, tablet, or console by yourself.
- Aimlessly watching a television series, YouTube, or a disengaging movie.
- Reading news headlines without even opening the articles.
Disconnecting is reducing down to a basic form of yourself. For example, turning off the emotional (limbic) system to merely make decisions to silence pain or avoid problems is a form of dissociation—our basic internal disconnection mechanics. Disconnection is most easily understood as becoming passive (consumer) rather than active (creator).
Is it Okay for Kids to Connect and Disconnect? Yes, But…
Similar to anyone, sometimes children need to just sit back and watch a sports game, stream a show, watch YouTube, or play video games without others. Kids need that time to themselves to decompress and be mindless. But let’s be clear: the goal of any mindlessness is to return fragments to connection! Not the other way around.
That being said...
Don’t allow decompression to turn into unregulated engrossment and mindless consumption.Mindless is merely the first step on the path to mindful.
Using technology to decompress is necessary, but not nearly as ideal as connecting with technology (video games or face-to-face calls with others). Thus, there is a need to regulate and check-in more often when using technology in a disconnecting manner.
It’s a slippery slope.
Participating in disconnecting technology can easily begin to take away from the human relationships we need.
What Really Hurts Child Development?
All right, we know that connecting with others and yourself either through the use of technology or without technology is superior to disconnecting with technology. So, the question is:
Why are children disconnecting through the use of technology?
Oftentimes we hear that adults, teens, and children are addicted to technology. When kids disconnect via technology they’re not really “addicted to” technology so much as misplacing attachment to it.
The Difference Between Addiction and Misplaced Attachment
Addiction is reaching to alcohol, pornography, gambling, games, drugs, checking your phone, eating sweets, or less “bad” things. These stand-in as a substitute for feeling whole and connected to people or yourself.
Not feeling connected to yourself stems from a negative emotional state. It’sinternal turmoilattempting to find connection. For many children, they will turn towards technology to “fulfill” that connection, but instead are inadvertently creating a substitute attachment.
The part of us that wants to create healthy relationships and connect with others has formed a substitute attachment to something else. For many people, it feels as if they have a very real relationship with the video games—but turns out the video games cannot love them back, which leads to a dissatisfied feeling.
It’s a cyclical process:
Why COVID-19 is an Opportune Time for Change
You’re already aware that children are spending excessive amounts of time at home and away from friends and relatives. Are their development and mental health suffering? Most likely. To what extent? We don’t know right now. All we have is anecdotal evidence from millions of households and families across the nation experiencing ongoing quarantining and missing connections with friends and family.
Thus, right now is the time to talk to your children about their screen time and phone usage. By now, kids are actually searching for that vital human connection, and might not be as invested in their video games or screens. If they are more engaged with tech than they were pre-coronavirus, it’s most likely because they are trying to fill that human-connection gap. That being said, there are key tactics parents can implement this school year.
Why Quality Over Quantity Matters When it Comes to Child Development
First off, we are not saying that quantity, or the amount of time spent on screens, doesn’t matter. It absolutely does, and big tech companies profit off of you and your child’s screen time.
Think about it:
The more time children spend on tech companies’ devices, the more likely they are to use apps that are created for dulled-down consumption or watch and click on paid ads sending them down a rabbit hole of wanting more misplaced fulfillment.
This is shocking, but, if you put together the amount of revenue app companies profit from ads, it would be number 24 in international economies. Watch our video to get a better understanding of how paid-ads are engrossing children.
Principles to Implement When Using Neutral Technology
The majority of technology out there is neutral. Meaning, there is not a binary of “good” and “bad” technology. If anything, technology is more of a sliding scale, and the vast majority of it is neutral.
Again, what matters isn’t so much that your child uses technology, but how they use it, and to what extent they are aware of how they are using it.
Here are three tips that your family can implement healthily when using neutral technology:
Be aware of technology: try to be cognizant of what you spend your time on when you are staring at a smartphone, computers, tablets, or television screens. You can either chart down your minutes or hours spent, or just know when to say enough is enough for the day.
Use technology to connect with others: we have said this throughout the article, but technology is more fun when you are using it with friends and family. You can use your mobile phone to play either one-on-one or group games, use apps for family game night, or hop online with friends to play a round or two of video games.
- Work technology into your schedule: having structure and organization is healthy and necessary for all humans. By penciling in time to be on technology, you will be more cognizant of when and how you use it. Technology will become more meaningful to you. And in turn, you will connect more through technology rather than disconnect through it.
Inherently Good Technology to Use
Since technology is on a sliding scale, what qualifies as good technology?
At Pinwheel, we had an inkling from our own lives of what qualifies as good tech but weren’t 100% sure. So, we decided to create a therapist council to help us explicate and define “good tech.”
Inherently, good technology cannot be mindless and addictive. Rather, good technology should engage your mind and push you to either connect face-to-face with others, use critical thinking skills to problem solve, or explore your imaginative side.
Pinwheel phones achieve being in the “good tech” zone in two ways:
There are no addictive apps on Pinwheel phones – Our therapist council and founders constructed an App Criteria to help us discern which apps qualify as good tech. We researched over 3,000 apps and narrowed them down to under 100. These apps are to help children communicate with others, stay mentally and physically fit, and encourage creative and cognitive exploration.
We are still adding to our current app list, and you can suggest apps yourself through the Caregiver Portal. Before doing so, please make sure your suggestions meet our App Criteria.
The OS is designed to connect children with others and themselves – The Caregiver portal is devised for parents to create more structure in their child’s life.
Through this structure, Pinwheel users begin to think about their relationship with technology: how often they use certain apps, what do they enjoy doing on their phone, and how are they connecting with themselves and others when using technology.
In summary, what matters most for your child is to not get siloed into using technology in a mindless, passive, and consuming manner. Participating in these negative habits can lead to misplaced attachment and a disconnection from oneself and others.
What is important is to help create structure around technology for your child. Assist them in identifying good and bad technology habits, and ask how they feel when they are partaking in technology. Are they connecting or disconnecting?
In the end, we as humans are still learning how to interact with the ever-changing tech landscape. What we do know is the need for self-monitoring and awareness. If you teach these skills to your son or daughter, you’re not only setting him or her up for success with technology, but also life!
See how Pinwheel can help your family use wellness technology that connects!