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International Panel of Experts Explores Effects of Digital Media on Developing Minds

Children and phones

It’s a question that troubles parents everywhere: What effect is digital media having on the brains and development of children?

On Thursday, May 16, a group of international experts convened in the Charles B. Wang Center theater to tackle the question. Moderated by Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, Editor-in-Chief of JAMA Pediatrics and Director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, the panel included five experts who offered insight on how to deal with a challenge parents around the globe face today: the ubiquitous presence of screens in the lives of children and how this unprecedented volume of media consumption may be affecting and shaping them.

Children and phones
How much is too much? Experts weigh in on children’s screen time.

The discussion, which encouraged participation from the lively near-full house in attendance, opened with a familiar question virtually every parent confronts: What is the appropriate age to give a child their own cell phone?

“The average age of kids getting a cell phone is around 10-11,” said Sheri Madigan, assistant professor of Clinical Psychology and director of the Determinants of Child Development Lab, University of Calgary. “Unfortunately, there is no hard guideline. You have to determine what is going to work for your child. Can they manage it? Can they disengage when they need to?”

In agreement is Lauren Hale, professor of Family, Population, and Preventive Medicine Program in Public Health, Core Faculty Stony Brook University and editor-in-chief of Sleep Health, the journal of the National Sleep Foundation.

“Kids 10 or 11 or even younger can bring devices into their rooms and communicate all night long,” she said. “Nearly 90 percent of teens are not getting the sleep they need to function at their best, and 96 percent of older teens have an electronic device in their bedroom.”

According to Dillon Browne, Canada research chair in Child and Family Clinical Psychology and assistant professor of Psychology, University of Waterloo, the types of phones that are available is also a contributing factor.

“There’s a difference between a ‘device’ and a ‘data plan,’” he said. “The flip-phone that we had years ago isn’t the same as what we have today, which is essentially a pocket-sized computer.”

For all the benefits those powerful “mini-computers” and ‘round-the-clock connectivity may offer, they also feed a rather dark downside.

“We’re seeing an increase in gambling and gaming disorders,” said Hans-Jürgen Rumpf, Psychologist, Department of Psychology and Psychotherapy, University of Lübeck, Germany.  “Some people can’t control what they do and for how long. Some of today’s games have a high addiction potential.” All of those factors, offered Rumpf, also apply to what is often the “elephant in the room,” internet pornography.

One of the factors exacerbating those issues, said Jennifer Emond, assistant professor of Biomedical Data Science and assistant professor of Pediatrics at the Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, is the lack of regulations currently in place when it comes to marketing to children.

Lauren Hale
Sleep researcher Lauren Hale pictured with her infant son in 2015

“In the U.S. today we don’t have many regulations and kids are getting bombarded,” she said. “It’s the Wild West, and it’s gotten very difficult to monitor what our kids get exposed to. A lot of apps market to kids – even pre-school kids. We need to figure out a way to monitor that.”

That challenge becomes more difficult in a time where devices have become a pervasive part of everyday life – especially teen life – and admittedly bring positives to the table as well as the much-publicized negatives.

“Facetiming with grandparents, for example, is one of the clear benefits,” says Hale. “It’s beneficial and there’s no downside. And travelling with a child is so much easier because we are connected,” a sentiment Rumpf also expressed.

“Just today on my way here I was in an airport, and I had a chance to speak with my daughter back home for a few minutes,” he said. “That would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, in the past.”

The concerns, however, are not just psychological, but also physiological.

“The obvious problem is that screen time displaces time kids should be sleeping, or at least preparing for sleep,” said Hale. “Instead, kids are on devices getting overstimulated by the ‘blue light’ that is emitted.”

To help alleviate that, Hale imposes three rules on her own children:

  • No devices within an hour of bedtime
  • No devices in the bedroom
  • All devices get charged in a central charging area

Limiting device exposure is something Rumpf also cites as critical.

“’Event frequency’ is really what’s different about this generation,” he said. “It’s not that these diversions exist, but that they exist all the time.”

Rumpf illustrated his point with an example of someone who might be prone to a gambling problem not being vulnerable to a weekly lottery drawing, but very vulnerable to the addictive behavior a slot machine with its repetitive reinforcement enables.

Hale added that in addition to the threat of devices bringing out addictive behaviors, the constant exposure to media also brings more exposure to all the social pressures and anxiety typical of the teen life.

As for the future? It’s a question every generation has grappled with in some form.

“These challenges go back all the way back to the printing press,” said Browne. “We need to put protocols in place to protect kids and minimize the extremism they get exposed to. This has to happen both at the political level and with big technology.”

The event was organized by Children and Screens Institute of Digital Media and Child Development in partnership with Stony Brook University. Children and Screens is an international non-profit organization founded in 2013 that is dedicated to exploring media’s impact on child development.

— Robert Emproto



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