Digital technology may have detrimental effects on children’s development and growth

Editor’s note: I’d like to apologize for not writing the whole summer. I had a great internship with 463 Communications that kept me quite busy and I’m now back at school–a senior at the University of Maryland. Enjoy!

American children begin their life online. At two years old, 92 percent of American children have an online presence, compared to 73 percent of children in the EU. Mothers uploading pictures of their sonograms online marks the process of digitalization for young children. After the children are born, six percent of American mothers give their children an email address or a social networking profile. At 5 years old, 50 percent of children interact with a tablet or gaming device, and the average age children begin playing video games is 3 years and 11 months.


Early studies on the effects of this heavy media on children’s social, emotional and cognitive development show real and serious results.

Children’s brains have four quadrillion synapses, four times the number of hyperlinks on the Internet. Their brains have more connections that adults to, because each interaction they have creates a new synapse. The connections we use most are strengthened over time, while the ones we don’t use are disconnected. While adults have fewer, but stronger connections, children have incredibly more connections that are open to more possibilities. At this critical stage in their lives, forming meaningful connections and nurturing the important ones are essential to them becoming successful adults. If children spend most of their time online, they may form quick connections between different bits of information, but may be ill-equipped to handle social interactions as adults.

More research suggests Internet use may be changing the wiring of our brains and how they work. A 2012 study by PLoS One compared brains of participants with Internet addiction to brains of healthy people. The study found increased white matter in those with Internet addiction, an area that contains nerve fibers used to transmit signals to other parts of the brain.

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“These changes showed evidence of disrupting pathways related to emotions, decision-making, and self control,” the study said. Other studies have found similar brain changes in scans of people addicted to alcohol, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and meth.

Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical report that too much hypertext and multimedia content has been linked in some kids to limited attention span, lower comprehension, poor focus, greater risk for depression and diminished long-term memory.

Adopting learning processes for physically changing brains of the twenty first century

As children learn to read, the brain builds pathways that allow for more sophisticated analysis and comprehension, or “deep reading,” said Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University. But she says that process takes time, even if it happens in seconds, while the Internet and digital technology happen at lightning speed and allow for instant gratification. She asks if children in the future will read at a younger age because of their exposure to technology, and if their brains will respond by cutting corners of normal reading pathways that lead to deep reading.

Aside from physical and cognitive repercussions, digital technology creates new social and emotional cultures that children must confront.

Some other challenges that digital children are prone to include:

  • Cyberbullying
  • Sexting
  • Sharing personal information online
  • Engaging with predators

A 2009 study by the Tucson Children’s Assessment of Sleep Apnea found that heavy technology use was linked to sleep deprivation, which can cause obesity, depression and other psychological troubles.

Wolf says questions about technology use and brain structure should be studied, and she thinks kids will need tailored instruction for reading comprehension in the digital world.

Here’s the good news!

But maybe technology represents just that: our nation is changing, and education and other facets of children’s experience will be different than ours was. There may even be advantages. Some experts believe digital technology helps children gain skills quicker and at a younger age, and this may give them at an advantage their parents didn’t have.

While some educators feared that texting culture would degrade writing skills, they have found that blogging and social media use have encouraged students to produce better teamwork and writing performance, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

Of 2,462 teachers surveyed, 96 percent said digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience,” and nearly 80 percent said the technologies “encourage greater participation among students.”