Touch screens, TV screens, smartphones, tablets, laptops – the ways we have to interact with technology are almost endless. In the last 20 years, we have gone from a classroom having one
computer as almost a novelty to every child in a classroom having an iPad to work on and a smartphone in their pocket.

Consumer Reports reported in 2011 that 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 have Facebook accounts, even though Facebook requires users to be over 13. By the age of two, many children already have an online history and by age five 50 percent or more regularly interact with a touch screen device like a tablet, according to Common Sense Media.

So what does all of this mean for developing brains? Are the days when children developed their brain’s pathways by playing outside and being imaginative with their blocks and toys long gone?

Even cute babies love laptops more than their toys.

Even cute babies love laptops more than their toys.

According to Jim Taylor, in “The Power of Prime,” an article for Psychology Today, “Because their brains are still developing and malleable, frequent exposure by so-called digital natives to technology is actually wiring the brain in ways very different than in previous generations. What is clear is that, as with advances throughout history, the technology that is available determines how our brains develop. For example, as the technology writer Nicholas Carrhas observed, the emergence of reading encouraged our brains to be focused and imaginative. In contrast, the rise of the Internet is strengthening our ability to scan information rapidly and efficiently.”

Your attention – it’s what keeps you focused on a task, and is, according to Taylor, “the gateway to thinking.” Without attention, you can’t reason, problem-solve, learn, make decisions or be imaginative.

The difference between reading a book and surfing the web, for example, can be like the difference between SCUBA diving and jet skiing, according to Carr. When you SCUBA dive, you are in a “slower” environment, able to pay attention to the things around you. On a jet ski, you are moving fast, looking around quickly, catching glimpses of this and that on the trip, unable to focus on one thing because of the speed and difficulty of driving while looking at things.

Cris Rowan, a biologist and occupational therapist, indicates that the rapid growth of technology affects children in a variety of ways. “Children’s developing sensory, motor, and attachment systems have biologically not evolved to accommodate this sedentary, yet frenzied and chaotic nature of
today’s technology.”

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the U.S. and Canada’s increases in childhood obesity, diabetes and possibly the diagnoses of conditions like autism, ADHD and other sensory disorders are
related to technology use.

Rowan said, “Young children require 2-3 hours per day of active rough and tumble play to achieve adequate sensory stimulation to their vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems. Tactile
stimulation received through touching, hugging and play is critical for the development of praxis, or planned movement patterns.”

It’s important for parents to recognize that playing outside – in that rough and tumble way we so often see young animals of all sorts do – is essential not just for the physical growth of young children, but their mental growth as well. One of the best ways to help children be well-behaved in almost any situation is to make sure they have plenty of time to “burn off” their energy and engage in free play before being asked to sit in a classroom – or be quiet in the car. Constantly resorting to entertaining children with cell phones, tablets, laptops and more could very well be creating irreversible gaps in not just their learning, but in their ability to learn.

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