We’ve all been there—or, at the very least, we’ve all been in a restaurant with a parent who’s been there. A toddler in the midst of a maelstrom tantrum is handed an iPad and suddenly goes into zone-out mode. It’s a nice trick for those situations where a complete freakout needs to be quelled post-haste, but as many have asked over the past three or four years, what are the longer-term neurological and social effects of giving kids so much tablet time?
Over on Bits this week, Nick Bilton checks in with a number of studies and academics about the omnipresent question. First, he notes that new evidence about the tablet generation is emerging, in the form of findings by the Millennium Cohort Study, a British study of almost 20,000 kids born in 2000 and 2001:
…Those who watched more than three hours of television, videos, or DVDs a day had a higher chance of conduct problems, emotional symptoms and relationship problems by the time they were 7 than children who did not. The study, of a sample of 11,000 children, found that children who played video games—often age-appropriate games—for the same amount of time did not show any signs of negative behavioral changes by the same age.
The findings suggest that it isn’t just an issue of television versus tablet, but of content—a game or a puzzle seems to have fewer negative long-term effects than a video.
Beyond the content question, Bilton plumbs a more ambiguous anxiety, shared by many an iPad-wielding parent: Is this tablet interfering with my kid’s social development? One academic suggests that parents shouldn’t fear so much about the neurological side effects, but the behavioral ones:
“Conversations with each other are the way children learn to have conversations with themselves and learn how to be alone,” said Sherry Turkle, a professor of science, technology, and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.” “Learning about solitude and being alone is the bedrock of early development, and you don’t want your kids to miss out on that because you’re pacifying them with a device….They need to be able to explore their imagination. To be able to gather themselves and know who they are.
In the comments, several readers note that as app design advances, we may see programs that have the potential to teach kids about social interaction and conversation. But as Turkle notes, technology could affect how we behave when we’re alone too: If you don’t teach your children to be alone,” she tells Bilton, “they’ll only know how to be lonely.” Pop culture has long imagined a society full of brain-dead entertainment addicts, incapable of human emotion (think of Brave New World or even Wall-E). But Turkle suggests that such a state could arrive more slowly, as an insipid cultural shift, meted out across several generations as they sit around the dinner table.