Reminiscing about the good old techsmarthere when we were growing up is a memory trip well worth taking, when trying to understand the issues facing the children of today. A mere 20 years ago, children used to play outside all day, riding bikes, playing sports and building forts. Masters of imaginary games, children of the past created their own form of play that didn’t require costly equipment or parental supervision. Children of the past moved… a lot, and their sensory world was nature based and simple. In the past, family time was often spent doing chores, and children had expectations to meet on a daily basis. The dining room table was a central place where families came together to eat and talk about their day, and after dinner became the center for baking, crafts and homework.
Today’s families are different. Technology’s impact on the 21st century family is fracturing its very foundation, and causing a disintegration of core values that long ago were what held families together. Juggling work, home and community lives, parents now rely heavily on communication, information and transportation technology to make their lives faster and more efficient. Entertainment technology (TV, internet, videogames, iPods) has advanced so rapidly, that families have scarcely noticed the significant impact and changes to their family structure and lifestyles. A 2010 Kaiser Foundation study showed that elementary aged children use on average 8 hours per day of entertainment technology, 75% of these children have TV’s in their bedrooms, and 50% of North American homes have the TV on all day. Add emails, cell phones, internet surfing, and chat lines, and we begin to see the pervasive aspects of technology on our home lives and family milieu. Gone is dining room table conversation, replaced by the “big screen” and take out. Children now rely on technology for the majority of their play, grossly limiting challenges to their creativity and imaginations, as well as limiting necessary challenges to their bodies to achieve optimal sensory and motor development. Sedentary bodies bombarded with chaotic sensory stimulation, are resulting in delays in attaining child developmental milestones, with subsequent impact on basic foundation skills for achieving literacy. Hard wired for high speed, today’s young are entering school struggling with self regulation and attention skills necessary for learning, eventually becoming significant behavior management problems for teachers in the classroom.
So what is the impact of technology on the developing child? Children’s developing sensory and motor systems have biologically not evolved to accommodate this sedentary, yet frenzied and chaotic nature of today’s technology. The impact of rapidly advancing technology on the developing child has seen an increase of physical, psychological and behavior disorders that the health and education systems are just beginning to detect, much less understand. Child obesity and diabetes are now national epidemics in both Canada and the US. Diagnoses of ADHD, autism, coordination disorder, sensory processing disorder, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders can be causally linked to technology overuse, and are increasing at an alarming rate. An urgent closer look at the critical factors for meeting developmental milestones, and the subsequent impact of technology on those factors, would assist parents, teachers and health professionals to better understand the complexities of this issue, and help create effective strategies to reduce technology use. The three critical factors for healthy physical and psychological child development are movement, touch and connection to other humans. Movement, touch and connection are forms of essential sensory input that are integral for the eventual development of a child’s motor and attachment systems. When movement, touch and connection are deprived, devastating consequences occur.
Young children require 3-4 hours per day of active rough and tumble play to achieve adequate sensory stimulation to their vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems for normal development. The critical period for attachment development is 0-7 months, where the infant-parent bond is best facilitated by close contact with the primary parent, and lots of eye contact. These types of sensory inputs ensure normal development of posture, bilateral coordination, optimal arousal states and self regulation necessary for achieving foundation skills for eventual school entry. Infants with low tone, toddlers failing to reach motor milestones, and children who are unable to pay attention or achieve basic foundation skills for literacy, are frequent visitors to pediatric physiotherapy and occupational therapy clinics. The use of safety restraint devices such as infant bucket seats and toddler carrying packs and strollers, have further limited movement, touch and connection, as have TV and videogame overuse. Many of today’s parents perceive outdoor play is ‘unsafe’, further limiting essential developmental components usually attained in outdoor rough and tumble play. Dr. Ashley Montagu, who has extensively studied the developing tactile sensory system, reports that when infants are deprived of human connection and touch, they fail to thrive and many eventually die. Dr. Montagu states that touch deprived infants develop into toddlers who exhibit excessive agitation and anxiety, and may become depressed by early childhood.