Stunted by screen time

19th October 2012 at 01:00
Are pre-teens being damaged by spending too much time online?

It is all too often remarked that the social media revolution - driven by the likes of Facebook and Twitter - is transforming society. Teenage life especially, we are told, is unrecognisable from even half a generation ago.

Many parents - and most teachers - will be familiar with stories of teenagers spending hours locked into websites, exchanging messages, managing groups of friends, and even bullying one another.

But now, it would seem, it is the turn of the pre-teens to be subject to the transformational nature of this technology. One renowned neuroscientist has issued a stark warning about how young children are being exposed to the effects of social media, with potentially profound consequences.

"One shouldn't be surprised if a child playing in a park or playing in the street has a different mindset from a child limited to their room," Baroness Susan Greenfield, a former director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, told TES.

"There are attempts to get every young child into juvenile social networking under parental supervision, but they are not protected by (anyone) saying kids are too young to be on the internet.

"There is a natural appeal of keyboard and screen to small children and they are starting to adapt to the environment that is screen-based. I am worried about what amount of time a child spends in front of a screen. I feel they are not living a full life, they are living a 2D life."

Her comments come as a new study of children's internet use led by researchers from the London School of Economics found that 28 per cent of children aged 9 or 10 in the UK have a social networking profile - despite most providers such as Facebook having a minimum age of 13. The authors of EU Kids Online also warn that the UK is distinctive in having many under- 13s who lie about their age to get access to social media.

The study surveyed 25,000 children aged 9 to 16 in 33 countries across Europe. The researchers found that, in the UK, children first use the internet younger than the international average - at 8 years old - and tend to spend more time online.

A separate survey from the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals found that one in five children in England looking for information online has been worried or upset by what they have found.

"The brain is exquisitely sensitive to the environment. Therefore it is crucial to think about what environment young children are in. The 21st- century environment is unprecedented," Baroness Greenfield said.

"I don't want to ban computers. The issue for parents and teachers and for all of us as a society is to shape the environment for children so that it's appealing to a child not to sit in front of the computer, so that they choose to live in 3D. I'd like to see the computer reclaimed as a means to an end, not an end in itself."

Baroness Greenfield will be speaking on 27 October at the first conference of Early Childhood Action, a group set up earlier this year to influence the early years foundation stage (EYFS) curriculum for preschool children.

Early Childhood Action was set up in the wake of the Open EYE campaign, which began before the foundation stage became mandatory in 2008 and had called for it to be optional.

The EYFS previously included 69 learning goals, but the revised foundation stage, which came into force this September, has slimmed this to 17.

The Early Childhood Action conference is due to take place at the University of Winchester on Saturday 27 October. For more information, see bit.lyRxP2vx

Age-old problems

8 is the average age that children in the UK first use the internet

28% of children aged 9 or 10 in the UK have a social networking profile despite age restrictions.

Photo credit: Alamy

Original headline: A tree? Yes, I think I saw one of those on FarmVille


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