The Road to Robo-Nannies? - Child Week

By Mark Falanga

If you are ever in Universal Studios Florida, Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time is simply a ride you must go on. As you wait in line, you see products that have been invented by the fictional Cyberdine Systems Corporation, the company responsible for the creation of Terminators. Before you go inside of the theater, you are shown a brief film of the latest products that Cyberdine plans to release in the coming months. One particular advertisement shows a busy mother, away on a business trip, video chatting with her son as a robotic arm tucks him into bed and he gradually falls asleep.

Eleven years after its debut, the relationship between humanity and technology starting to resemble the reality of that Terminator ride. Video chatting is commonplace, with software like Skype and FaceTime, making technological advances part of our daily lives that once seemed like inconceivable impossibilities. Arguably, these new technologies are changing our lives, but are they also changing the way we raise kids?

Just like the mother on the Universal Studios ride, parents are giving their children devices like iPads to keep them busy. With a quick YouTube search you will find videos of hundreds of children, some as young as two-years-old, playing with these devices. The question arises: Are we doing harm or good by introducing them to children so young?

Photo courtesy of Scott & Elaine van der Chijs.

“In the past, we only had to be concerned about too much TV exposure. Now we have video games, computers and cell phones. It is overwhelming for young children and creates patterns of behaviors similar to addiction patterns,” said Mali Mann, M.D., an adjunct clinical assistant at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, in an interview with Tech News World.

She further explains that children get so used to this audio/video stimulation, that when they do not have it, they become “anxious, restless, bored, and aggressive.” Many experts agree behavioral changes can be a risk when exposing your child to highly developed technology for extended periods of time.

“The computer doesn’t exercise the brain and body together in the same way that normal childhood play does,” Jane Healy, an educational psychologist and author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds — For Better or Worse, told Wired magazine. This school of thought favors the notion that children acting like,well, children (climbing trees, jumping rope, building blanket forts) is absolutely essential for the development of a normal child brain. Perhaps critical thinking and problem solving skills are better developed when experienced in the physical world rather than the digital.

However, not all parenting authorities feel this way about technology.

“Children need computer skills,” said Ni Chang, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, in the same report from Wired. “I personally think that software, if selected properly, will help preschoolers learn. The child should acquire knowledge at the same time [he] is having fun.”

Chang, a supporter of the early introduction of technology to children, later went on to tell the story of a young four-year-old boy who confused the numbers six and nine, a common mistake for children of his age. This was not deemed serious until he started also confusing the numbers seven and 10. When traditional methods failed to help the boy overcome these learning challenges, Chang turned to a software program and soon the child learned to distinguish the different numbers.

“Our daily lives have become more about multitasking and being able to communicate several different ways: by e-mail, in chat rooms, by text message,” scholar of media research who teaches at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, David Dutwin, told “Having a deep attention span for several hours is maybe not as crucial to success as it was before.”

Dutwin further explains that numerous amounts of research has shown the detrimental effects of too much exposure to these mediums, but not enough is given to what positive effects they can have in small doses. Dutwin says that even half hour doses of educational television for a two-year-old can prove beneficial, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics says otherwise.

Ultimately, it is up to the parents to decide how much technology should be exposed to their children. Intrinsic to common sense parenting is a belief that too much of any one thing can prove detrimental to a child’s development, even if the influence of life-enhancing technologies are increasingly forgotten in such thinking. Consensus among experts suggests an exercise in moderation is key for children to develop social skills that only come through playing with other children, not just experiencing it through a digital looking glass.