Sustainable Children - Are they a blast from the past?

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Over the past 30 years, I’ve had the unique opportunity as a pediatric occupational therapist to witness profound changes in children. I used to see kids with physical disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down’s Syndrome, but about 15 years ago the referrals changed to motor delays or sensory processing problems. Today my most frequent referrals are for severe behavior including tantrums and aggression, poor self-regulation, and attention deficit with difficulty learning. 90% of my referrals are for boys, many already diagnosed with adhd and/or autism, and many on stimulant or other mind altering medications. Concomitant with this shift in child behavior was the onset of a variety of new technologies, resulting in a child who is now largely sedentary, overstimulated, sleep deprived, socially isolated, and often neglected. Sometime ago I looked to the research to find out what is the relationship between screens and child development, and what I learned convinced me to make my life’s work one of helping others learn how to balance technology with healthy activity. The ways in which we are raising and educating our children with technology are now longer sustainable. This article profiles my professional experience regarding the pervasive impact of technology on our children’s lives, and proposes a variety of initiatives for parents, teachers and the community at large to work together to ensure sustainable futures for all children.

Over the past three months, I visited 15 schools and universally observed children falling asleep in class, frequent tantrums and meltdowns, limited ability to self-regulate, severe attention deficit, learning difficulties, and asocial and antisocial behavior. To date research shows that one in three children are developmentally delayed, one in three sleep deprived, one in five have a diagnosed mental illness, one in four are obese or overweight, and one in 11 are addicted to technology. I observed that boys were obsessed with video games (it’s all they could talk about) and girls were compulsively texting and Facebooking…often in class. Use of non-research evidenced ‘education technology’ was prevalent in many classrooms including movies and games, as was unrestricted use of ‘entertainment technology’ including video games, porn, Facebooking, and texting. In my teacher workshops on technology management, teachers report they are often pressured by administration to use more technology, as eventually the device will replace textbooks. One teacher reported he did not get a degree to “police” use of cell phones, and has “given up” trying to manage personal devices. A principal reported that after a teacher removed his cell phone in class, he went to the office to phone 911 to report his “rights” were infringed upon.

In my classroom Tech Talks with students, many of the boys were unable to identify any other activity than entertainment technology – predominantly video games, and girls reported their biggest worry was centred around creating the perfect self-image profile. When asked what video games the boys like to play, many reported Halo and Call of Duty, both with > 18 year ratings (many gamers were as young as grade two). One boy who reported he was “obsessed” with killing zombies in Halo, reported the reason he threw a rock at a passing truck breaking the window was because “I thought I saw zombies inside”. With one boy I used a variety of movement and nature techniques to essentially ‘remove’ this imagery so he could pay attention and learn, and after two hours, this student finally said to me “I think they’re gone now”. Kids as young as grade two reported they had been approached by a potential predator online yet had not told their parents. Despite the age of the child, when asked how many children are allowed devices in their bedrooms, approximately 75% raised their hands. When discussing technology overuse and addiction with grade 9-12 students, half self-identified as have a “problem” with controlling device use.

Are these children we are raising and educating with tech going to grow up healthy and have jobs and partners, or will they end up unemployed, living in their parent’s basement like the 42.3% of 20-29 year olds in Canada currently are doing? The ways in which we are raising and educating children with technology are not sustainable.

The brain rewires itself according to the environmental stimuli to which it is exposed. When a child uses a lot of technology, their brain will be wired differently from a child who doesn’t. From birth, the infant’s brain triples in size during the first two years with a proliferation of synaptic connections being formed at a rate of 7000 per second. In addition to this proliferation is a process termed pruning, where the brain prunes neurons that aren’t being used, a process that will essentially reduce the brain’s neuron number by 2/3 upon death at age 80 years. Children who overuse entertainment technology > 4-5 hours per day, exhibit atrophy or death of brain areas located in the frontal lobes, an area of the brain which controls executive functions such as attention, impulse control, memory, understanding consequence to action, and critical thinking. Fast paced media content is literally ‘short circuiting’ our children’s brains, resulting in a child who can no longer pay attention or learn.

As the advertising industry knows so well, visual imagery is a powerful tool to influence young minds because the viewer never “forgets it”. One study showed children can recall visual imagery from video games for up to four days following a gaming episode. The students I worked with who were frequent gamers reported they “gamed” in their heads while at school, with the idea that they would become more proficient gamers when they got home. Termed Game Transfer Phenomena, these young boys were essentially transferring visual and auditory gaming imagery into their real lives, and replaying this imagery in school, home and community settings. Prolific research documents causal relationships between video games and violence, bullying, and attention deficit…all behaviours consistent with observations and reports by parents and teachers today.

So what can parents and teachers do to reverse this increasing trend to overuse technology in homes and schools. Below graphic Building Foundations depicts four critical factors children need to grow and succeed: movement, touch, human connection, and nature. When children receive adequate amounts of motor and sensory input to these systems, they are healthy, can pay attention and learn, have good social relationships, and be able to find work or go to post-secondary education upon high school graduation. Accompanying diagram Virtual Futures depicts how technology use is sedentary, isolating, overstimulating and results in neglect from adults, resulting in a child who is not sustainable, and will not be able to find a job, have meaningful relationships, nor be physically healthy in adulthood.

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Parents who set rules regarding technology overuse, have children who use less technology. Recommendations are to remove all technology from the bedrooms out into an area where parents can supervise what content they are using. Below Technology Usage Guidelines were developed to advise parents regarding content and duration for different ages. Device tracking apps may be needed to monitor content and duration, although this becomes another chore at the end of a parent’s long day. Unplugging the router at night and locking it up, is a great strategy to help everyone get a good night’s sleep. Schools are recommended to develop technology management policies in conjunction with the students. A successful strategy is for whole grade to establish Tech Contracts where students commit to following these rules. Media Literacy Programs should be established where students are not only informed regarding the down side of technology, but also contain open forums for discussion. Technology is advancing so rapidly, ongoing interventions are required in order to stay abreast of future issues.

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Reprinted with permission from American Academy of Pediatrics 2002/13/15, Canadian Academy of Pediatrics 2010, Institute for Digital Media and Child Development 2015.

Cris Rowan is a registered pediatric occupational therapist, biologist, international speaker, and author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children”. Additional information can be found on Cris’s website www.zonein.ca including Research Fact Sheet, educational videos, and free monthly newsletter. Articles can be located on Cris’s blog www.movingtolearn.ca. You can contact Cris at info@zonein.ca.