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Is technology harmful?

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By Dr Richard HouseSenior Lecturer in Psychotherapy and Counselling at Roehampton University and co-founder of Open EYE

Recent research links exposure to televisual technologies in early childhood with negative long-term effects. Dr Richard House puts the case for a precautionary approach to ICT

Child watching television

The media is awash with new research findings detailing that exposure to televisual technologies in early childhood is associated with negative developmental effects.

Research by Dr Linda Pagani of the University of Montreal referred to ‘extremely negative long-term effects’ of early exposure to television (BBC News website, March 2010). It is of course always important not to assume causality from mere statistical associations but there is now so much empirical research accumulating in this field along with anecdotal experience and common-sense arguments, that many authorities are claiming with evermore urgency that early exposure to ICT is rapidly becoming a major public health hazard.

Worrying results

Pagani’s study involved over 1,300 children born in Quebec in 1997–8. Parents were asked how much TV their children watched at 29 and 53 months of age. Then, at the age of ten, the children were rated on variables such as maths and reading performance, attention span, cooperation with others and quality of social interactions. Every extra hour above average viewing-time was associated with, for example, a seven per cent decrease in classroom engagement, a 13 per cent decrease in weekend physical activity and a five per cent increase in body mass index. Importantly, these findings held true even after the researchers accounted for alternative factors that could have influenced the results.

Another very influential 2004 research report lead by Dimitri A Christakis tested the hypothesis that early television exposure at ages one and three is associated with problems of attention at age seven. Well over a thousand children were studied and researchers found that ten per cent of children had problems. The authors concluded that: ‘Early television exposure is associated with attentional problems at age seven… and additional research is needed.’ (Christakis et al, Pediatrics, 2004)


“Young children need to experience the world in real human-relational terms rather than according to incomprehensible ‘virtual’ ones”


Sense impressions

Educationalist Rudolf Steiner offers one way of understanding these effects. What infants absorb in the way of sense impressions profoundly influences their life forces and, therefore, the ways in which their physical bodies develop. So young children’s sense impressions are a crucial influence upon healthy physical development. Human sensory organs are not fully developed at birth and they first have to be fine-tuned and mastered. However, if they are overloaded with sense impressions (especially inhuman, machine-derived ones) before the senses are fully enough developed, their potential is greatly curtailed, and the picture of the world that children can construct in their young minds is severely limited. We should, therefore, avoid as far as possible young children being exposed to essentially random, rapidly appearing and disappearing sensory impressions that are machine-originating and which have little, if any, living human context, which young children cannot begin to comprehend, and which confer no human meaning.

Such assaults on the senses can only lead to addiction, non-comprehension, alienation and/or anxiety. Put differently, young children need, above all, to experience the world in real human-relational terms rather than according to incomprehensible ‘virtual’ ones. The self-protective ‘buffer’ which we adults progressively build up between ourselves and the world is developed through a maturing understanding of that world, but the small child has not yet had the life experience which will enable her to do this successfully. Up to around the third year, young children deeply identify with whatever environment they find themselves in, and all the impressions they receive are absorbed in a largely uninhibited way, and unconsciously assimilated. As Steiner argued, these sense impressions are combined with the other physical processes, and a kind of ‘print’ is made, with the child’s very being modelling these multi-faceted environmental influences.

The Steiner Waldorf approach

This is why the Steiner Waldorf early-childhood approach takes great care with both the quality and, increasingly, the quantity of sense impressions to which young children are exposed, aiming to protect children from an increasingly hyperactive technological society. Not least, with the sensual bombardment that typifies ‘modernist’ culture, young children are in increasing danger of losing the capacity to discriminate subtle sense experience – with quite unknown and unpredictable consequences for their adulthood.

Some years ago, Britain’s then Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, bemoaned pre-school children’s lack of language skills compared with previous generations – and television was top of the list of culprits (The Independent, Education Supplement, March 2004). One recent survey found that seven in ten children have their own television, with three-fifths having a games console and British children spending on average six hours a day in front of televisual screens. We even read that in the course of nursery staff making child observations, ‘The children can also access the laptop and participate in their documentation’! (Nursery World, January 2009) This extraordinary article was accompanied by a photograph of a staff member holding a young baby in one arm and making observations on a laptop in the other! Yet we should hardly be surprised by this, as the government itself has explicitly written ICT guidance into its compulsory Early Years Foundation Stage, with, for example, practitioners being instructed to ‘Talk about ICT apparatus, what it does, what they can do with it and how to use it safely’ – with children under 36 months of age!

The Open EYE campaign

This state-imposed exposure to ICT for very young children is tantamount to state-sanctioned child abuse. And this is why the Open EYE Campaign calls for ‘a strictly precautionary approach’ to ICT, and especially in the early years when young children’s vulnerable brains and senses are still developing. We therefore also strongly recommend the immediate removal of all ICT-related guidance and compulsory requirements in the EYFS, pending a comprehensive independent review of existing research on ICT and early childhood experience.

Nurturing the perennial values and deep relational experience of being human is most important by far in the early years; and if we fail in our responsibilities to protect young children from the displacing, addictive and anti-social influences of these machine technologies, then the dire warnings of such authorities as Dame Susan Greenfield, Dr Aric Sigman and Sue Palmer will increasingly come to pass – with potentially catastrophic developmental consequences for a generation of young children.


Further Reading

  • Alliance for Childhood (2000), Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, College Park, Md
  • Healy, JM (1998), Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds – for Better and Worse, Simon & Schuster, New York
  • Sigman, A (2008), Does Not Compute: Screen Technology in Early Years Education, Open EYE Special Report, 2008 available to download from the OpenEYE website

Images: © greenland/Shutterstock Images

Reviews

  1. Jennifer
    on 10 November 2010

    Is technology harmful?

    With reference to David Bell’s statement: “pre-school children lack language skills compared with previous generations – and television was top of the list of culprits”. The answer could possibly be that children lack language skills because adults are far too obsessed with viewing television. I have personally seen parents multitasking, sitting with a laptop using the internet, a mobile phone in one hand, as well as watching television. Perhaps researchers should include into their studies the percentage of time parents spend using technology. They may find that it is not just the amount of time children are spending watching television but rather the quantity and quality of time parents spend interacting and conversing with their children. How many parents come home from work and the first thing they do out of habit is to switch the television on to watch the news, sport, or their favorite soap opera. Children are exposed to technology through their parents, who are their role models.