Why it's time to get real about kids and tech fears

As anxiety over children's use of technology grows it is important not to ignore its role in driving literacy and creativity.

iPhones and children are "a toxic pair", according to a recent Wall Street Journal headline about two activist Apple shareholders worried about youth smartphone addition. The story is the latest example of a growing number of reports to demonise technology’s role in kids’ lives, and I believe a reassessment of the relationship between the two is long overdue.

At first glance, a host of recent research studies appear to legitimise the suggestion that unless we are extremely careful, our children’s lives will be blighted by digital devices and digital content. 

Teenagers’ social media use is fundamentally changing their social skills, preferences and how they communicate with friends

US psychologist Nicholas Kardaras, for example, coined the phrase "glow kids" to describe the generation of children and teens immersed in digital technology, and lit by a screen. He has suggested computer gaming and website addiction could be as harmful to the developing brain as cocaine addiction, but more difficult to cure. 

According to UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center, teenagers’ social media use is fundamentally changing their social skills, preferences and how they communicate with friends. Receiving "likes" activates the reward centres in the brain, similar to winning a prize, according to one recent study.

Elsewhere in the US, researchers are examining whether over-stimulating children with media – particularly with endlessly-streaming, hard-to-ration, videos and interactive games via tablets – causes an imbalance in part of the cerebral cortex related to paying attention to critical tasks and ignoring distractions. Their hypothesis is that this might pose problems in later life, particularly with focus, memory and impulsivity.

Small wonder, then, that recent Australian research suggesting that almost 90 per cent of children in that country have virtually unlimited access to digital, prompted yet a further round of hand-wringing. 

Now, I’m not saying that unfettered, unlimited and unstructured access for children to digital devices and content has no potential downside. Of course, we need to be mindful of very young children’s digital exposure, for example, as recent studies have detailed the potentially negative impact this can have on young toddlers’ speech development.

But what’s also important is to consider the many benefits digital technology can deliver – and weigh this against the downsides of excessive amounts of time spent by children passively sitting back and consuming non-interactive content, such as the nation’s favourite babysitter: traditional TV.

On the first point, two other reports recently caught my eye. 

The first covered research conducted in the UK by the National Literacy Trust which showed that technology, including tablets and smartphones, can play a role in supporting early communication, language and literacy by offering new learning opportunities, such as interactive and intuitive story telling ebooks and apps, and online video calling.  

I am a firm believer that digital offers a wide and diverse array of learning opportunities for children that are educational – in the word’s broadest sense

The second was new research from Oxford University published in December suggesting that official guidance on daily limits to manage children’s digital media time might not be as beneficial as first thought. In fact, moderate screen use above the recommended daily limits might be linked to slightly higher levels of children’s psychological wellbeing, they suggest.

As a parent of a young daughter and the managing director of a digital product studio, I find myself less concerned about the issue of screen time than I am about the context within which digital content – any content, for that matter –  is used.

The key for me is the difference between passive and interactive content consumption. My aim is to resist the approach that when there’s nothing better to do, you simply hand a kid a device or turn on the telly. Instead, I am a firm believer that digital offers a wide and diverse array of learning opportunities for children that are educational – in the word’s broadest sense. 

For me, digital experiences (social media aside) provide a powerful and rich opportunity to advance children’s understanding of the world around them through interaction and play. I see my role as safeguarding my child while engaging with that content – and yes, of course, I do worry about privacy.

I also try my best to provide the right context for when she does so, and make conscious decisions about which digital content to make available to her. 

The best digital experiences, I believe, are fun, inspiring and foster creativity – in short, they plays to digital’s strengths. We try to capture that in our own work. 

Today’s children are growing up digital, they are learning via digital in school, and this is leading them to learn – and remember – information in new and different ways

Our Malmö studio’s PlayLab experiments look to update playing shop in a world of self-service and online shopping, for example. The team created BlipShop - a children’s game which matched the current process of shopping by using a barcoded scanner and paying with a credit or debit card. It brought "playing shop" truly into the 21st century and demonstrated, in a fun and simple way, how credit card purchases are limited by the amount of money one has (shown as gold coins). Kids loved it and ended up playing it much longer than we expected.

Today’s children are growing up digital, they are learning via digital in school, and this is leading them to learn – and remember – information in new and different ways. True, thanks to Google, they may no longer need to learn by rote the capital cities of all European cities - as I did. But this doesn’t mean they know less. Rather they’ve freed some brain space for something else. Something potentially more valuable. 

The true challenge for anyone wanting to create content for children within this context is to agonise not about the latest shock headline but how best to inspire and engage children with the world around them. And to do that they must offer content that adds real value, and helps children to understand and experience the world around them by doing something new.

Nicki Sprinz is managing director of ustwo London

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