Earlier this month, 60 Minutes reported on the effects of “screen time” on American children. The unsettling segment concerned a groundbreaking study by the National Institutes of Health that confirms how screens affect brain development. The study’s initial data, involving 4,500 participants, detected significant differences in the brains of children using screens, like tablets or smartphones, for more than seven hours a day. Early findings cannot determine if these differences indicate harmful or beneficial effects, but the NIH study does show a link between children’s screen time and lower scores on cognitive tests. The report raises troubling questions about immersive use of technology devices in the young. As Jean Twenge, a prominent psychologist, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, smartphones “should be a tool that you use. Not a tool that uses you.”
No tool epitomizes screen technology’s impact like the iPhone. Since its release in 2007, the device has distorted reality and disrupted daily routines for adults; for children, it is becoming a cognitive appendage. According to nonprofit Common Sense Media, 98 percent of homes with children have mobile devices, and 42 percent of young children now have their own tablets (up from 1 percent in 2011).
Rather than resisting this influence, school systems are welcoming it. For young students, and even preschoolers, screens have become a portal for understanding the world. Educators embrace technology’s supremacy, believing that screen time will prepare their students for the working world. Code.org, a nonprofit backed by companies like Google and Facebook, spreads the tech gospel. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the organization has enjoyed “remarkable success in advancing its agenda by offering free programs for schools and through a social-media-savvy marketing campaign and lobbying.” The efforts have paid off; as the Inquirer reported, 25 percent of all U.S. students have Code.org accounts; 800,000 teachers use the site for class lessons.
Is the fusion of education and technology helping children? In The Atlantic, Rob Waters explored the effect of classroom technology on academic outcomes. Waters cites an Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development report, released in 2015, that found technology “is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.” He visited the learning lab of a charter school that serves low-income students in San Jose, California, where one concerned teacher told him, “I’m not anti-technology but I’m definitely for minimizing it. . . . Is the tech in my classroom going to preserve or enhance human connection?”
This question lies at the heart of an ironic new class division: between Silicon Valley parents, who understand all too well the dangers of gadgets for young children, and the heartland’s middle- and working-class families, whose children are increasingly saturated in screen time. In October, the New York Times profiled how “play-based preschools” now thrive in prosperous neighborhoods, ensuring that children play with traditional toys, develop interaction skills, and avoid the glow of tablet screens. But screen-based preschools continue to expand, too, often with federal grant funding, in states like Idaho and Wyoming. As the Times reported, a state-funded preschool, offered exclusively online, now serves approximately 10,000 children in Utah. Despite intensifying concerns about technology’s effect on childhood development, “Apple and Google compete ferociously to get products into schools and target students at an early age, when brand loyalty begins to form.”
As the NIH study progresses, Americans will learn more about how screens harm children’s brains, but we already know that tablet screens compromise attentiveness, induce agitation, distort perspective, and hinder interaction. Speaking on 60 Minutes, pediatrician Dimitri Christakis confirmed screens’ effect on babies, noting that skills learned on iPads, such as “stacking” virtual blocks, don’t translate into physical skills. “They don’t transfer the knowledge from two dimensions to three,” Christakis told Cooper.
Can parents insulate children, at their most malleable stages of development, from Big Tech? Students increasingly require technology for academic work and long-term advancement (Pew Research Center reported in October that many teenagers cannot finish their homework because of limited broadband access). But by embracing tablets as learning tools, parents are ceding their children’s intellectual growth to technology. Armed with smartphones, lost in apps, distracted by games, children join their parents in becoming ravenous digital consumers.
Throughout 2018, Big Tech’s privacy breaches—from Facebook’s data exploitation to social media’s ecosystem for foreign-funded misinformation—made news. Perhaps the most overlooked story, though, addressed on 60 Minutes, is how Silicon Valley, through educational marketing, has hooked a new generation on its products. As Athena Chavarria, who works for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, told the Times: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.” As a result, more and more children face futures deprived of natural wonder—a high enough price to pay, but one likely to rise as we learn more about technology’s cognitive effects on young brains.
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images