Teachers have been bedazzled by promises that ICT in the classroom and home will enhance learning and prepare children for the future. However, professionals in the field of adolescent health are becoming concerned by an unforeseen side-effect of ICT: technology overuse and dependency.
The recent international study The World Unplugged asked university students in 10 countries to abstain from using electronic media, excluding landline phones, for a full day. A clear majority in every country failed. The researchers noted that many pupils employed the rhetoric of addiction, dependency and depression when reporting their reactions to the lack of media, with many also reporting mental and physical symptoms of distress. In April, the Turkish Ministry of National Education hosted the 1st International Congress of Technology Addiction in Istanbul.
While scientists disentangle the semantics of "addiction", "dependence" and "habit formation", one thing is clear: whether children are formally "addicted" to screen technology or not, many of them overuse technology and have developed an unhealthy dependency on it. This is potentially bad for their health, well-being and education.
Teachers have been led to believe that if children are only viewing "educational" or "appropriate" material on screen, they won't be subject to the negative effects of too much screen time. This is untrue. While purveyors of software and technology and the researchers funded by them stress the distinctions between various products, the child's brain and body do not: heavy exposure to the medium has effects that transcend the quality of the message on the screen.
High levels of early screen time appear to be more likely to lead to a long-term lifestyle of the same, which is considered an independent risk factor for disease, irrespective of the educational value or appropriate or inappropriate content of what is on the screen.
Level of exposure
The US Department of Health cites reducing screen time as one of its key "health improvement priorities"; the Australian Department of Health and Ageing and the American Academy of Pediatrics and others all advise parents to limit out-of-school discretionary screen time to a maximum of two hours per day for children aged 2-18. In the UK, by the age of 10 children have regular access to an average of five different screens at home, regularly engaging in two or more forms of screen-viewing at the same time. Children of all ages are watching more screen media than ever before.
Altering the brain's reward circuitry
The neurotransmitter dopamine is released in response to the novelty and stimulation of what is seen on the screen, so increases quickly in the brain while the child is playing computer games. But dopamine is also a key component of the brain's reward system and heavily implicated in the formation and maintenance of addictions. While genes play a role in the way dopamine is produced or used, thereby influencing a person's susceptibility to dependency or addiction, there are now concerns that extensive computer game playing among children may lead to long-term changes in the brain's reward circuitry that resemble the effects of substance dependence.
Managing screen time
ICT should be a tool, not a burden or health risk. Excessive screen time in the home affects the child in school and so a joined-up approach is necessary to get a handle on the excessive levels of discretionary screen time children are currently enjoying. By the age of 7 the average child born today will have watched the equivalent of a full year of screen media. By the age of 80 they will have spent 17.6 years doing the same. Someone must take responsibility for these numbers. Schools must consider how much screen time is necessary.
There are many contributory factors to a child's total daily exposure to, or "consumption of", technology: their age, frequency of use, amount of exposure, ease of access and the effects of parental role-modelling. All are factors that contribute to the risk of dependent overuse of technology. Preventing or reducing this risk now requires a reduction in the level of total screen exposure.
There is good evidence that children's screen time can be reduced through simple, obvious measures: raising parental awareness, child education and school-based education for pupils and teachers. Parents should also reduce screen time and introduce limits: it is common sense.
Dr Aric Sigman is a PSHE lecturer, fellow of the Society of Biology and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society.
Sigman, A. The Impact of Screen Media on Children: A Eurovision for Parliament (2012)
Clouder, C. et al, eds. Improving the Quality of Childhood in Europe, Volume 3 (2012)
European Parliament Working Group on the Quality of Childhood in the European Union
International Center for Media and the Public Agenda. The World Unplugged. http:theworldunplugged.wordpress.com (2011).