Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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3 Digital pessimists

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Figure 7 Do screen-based games lead to problems in children’s mental and physical development?

Many parents, educators and psychologists have legitimate reasons to worry about children’s engagement with the digital world. We live in a risk-averse society and this is certainly true with regard to children. We know that children are likely to run risks if they access the internet unsupervised, or stay online for long periods of unbroken time. Adults’ fears for children and their worry about their own lack of control over their children are the single biggest obstacles to accepting digital technology.

Debates often express moral or social anxieties such as claims that children’s cognitive, emotional and social development is under threat. Such anxieties are often perpetuated through social media, uncritical newspaper articles and reinforced by some misinterpretations of science findings.

Here is an example of a book that focuses on the negative aspects of technology with little attention paid to the positives. Sue Palmer, in her thought-provoking and provocative text Toxic Childhood How the Modern World is Damaging our Children and What We Can Do About It (2007), claims that ‘every year children become more distractible, impulsive and self-obsessed – less able to learn, to enjoy life, to thrive socially’. Very often pessimism is directed towards screen-based media (such as television, games consoles and computers), with the assumption that they lead to a number of ills, including social isolation, lack of social skills and obesity.

Examples of the apparent risks appear in the work of Howard-Jones (2011), who analysed current research in neuroscience and psychology. His argument is that the developing brain can be highly susceptible to environmental influence, and thus that digital technology opens it to risks including:

  • aggressive responses in children caused by playing violent and often aggressive video games
  • interference with psycho-social wellbeing and children’s attention
  • the potential for disrupted sleep and damage to children’s health.

With online searching you will also find current research into so-called internet addiction, aggressive game-playing and bullying, which have also been linked to children’s exposure to the digital world.

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