David Elkind: Technology's Impact on Child Growth and Development

Mon, September 22, 2003

CIO — There is considerable disagreement among experts regarding the effects of technology on child growth and development. Some regard technology as advancing intellectual development. Others worry that technology may overstimulate and actually impair brain functioning. One of the problems is that most researchers have taken too narrow a focus on the issue. They have looked at the impact of a particular technology rather than at the technological environment as a whole. One might argue that taken as an aggregate, technologies such as computers, television and cell phones create a digital culture that has to be looked upon in its entirety rather than piecemeal. The question becomes: What is it like growing up in a high-tech world, and how does that differ from growing up at an earlier time? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the digital youth has a greater facility with technology than their parents and other adults. As a result, there is a greater disconnect between parents and children today, and some adolescents have even less respect for the knowledge, skills and values of their elders than they did a generation ago (hard as that may be to believe).

Digital children evidence other worrisome traits, but first, let’s explore the culture itself. It is certainly a speed-dominated culture—fast and getting faster. Online, we get impatient if it takes more than a second or two to get a response from a site hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles away.

Second, it is a screen culture. The movie screen has been followed by the television screen, which became a computer screen, and is now downsized to a cell phone screen. Today, young people spend a large portion of their waking hours in front of one or another screen.

Third, it is an information culture. In their homes, children and youth now have as immediate access to information as do the most erudite scholars in the world’s best libraries. Science, literature, history, drama and the arts are all at their fingertips.

Finally, it is a communication culture. The Internet and cell phone have made communication with peers an instant—and at all times possible—connection.

Growing up in this technological culture affects the language and concepts that children learn, and shapes their perceptions of reality. Terms like cyberspace, Internet, DVD, VCR and so on all refer to digital realities unknown to children of even the previous generation. The language, music and dress of teenagers all speak to their lack of respect for the older generation and their need to have clearly delineated generational boundaries. Independence from parents and adults means greater dependence on peers for advice, guidance and support. The availability of cell phones and immediate access to friends through instant messaging has only exaggerated this trend and quite possibly worsened the divide between children and their parents.

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