Seven hours. That might be a good night’s sleep or an easy day at work for some, but for children it represents the average daily time they spend plugged into some form of entertainment media, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The exposure comes in the form of computers, television and mobile technology, such as cellphones and tablets.
Generally, parents think that it is beneficial for children to get plugged in earlier, said state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango and former Durango High School teacher.
“They honestly believe that if their kids can get online faster, they’ll be smarter kids,” she said.
But the pediatrics group connects increased electronic exposure to a list of physical and mental health issues, including obesity and sleep problems, as well as social and educational development ones, such as school performance and exposure to inappropriate content.
Tim Farnum, a father of five and one of a trio of Denver area doctors who have introduced a ballot initiative to ban the sale of cellphones to preteens, said he bought into the idea that early access would result in better outcomes.
“I was all tech and wanted my kids to have the best and the earliest to have all the advantages,” Farnum said.
But then he noticed his children becoming more disconnected socially as they became more connected electronically, and he met other parents with similar experiences.
Suzanne Null, a Fort Lewis College associate professor who teaches educational instruction methods, such as implementation of technology in the classroom, said research is needed on the effects of unfettered use of technology by children, but there is merit to concerns about its developmental effects.
That is because of a process called myelination that is occurring in children’s brains. Null relates myelination to insulating a wire to allow for impulses to be sent quicker and more efficiently.
But part of making the brain run more efficiently is a process called pruning, which removes synapses that are not used by the brain because of environmental interactions.
That means exposure to different stimuli predisposes adolescents to particular types of behavior later in life, Null said.
“If you spend time playing video games, your brain is going to get wired and myelinated to play video games, and if you spend time interacting with people, your brain is going to get wired and myelinated for that,” she said.
McLachlan said that by the time she retired from DHS, she saw a shift in social interaction because of the prevalence of cellphones.
“In those teen movies, they show kids walking down the hall talking to each other on a cellphone, and they’re standing right next to each other and that’s not too far from the truth,” she said.
Dan Snowberger, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R, said a shift in social interactions because of technology exposure outside the classroom is a bigger concern in Durango’s schools because of the relative shortage of technology assets compared with larger districts.
The shift is problematic for a number of reasons, including the perception that social media statements don’t carry real-world consequences, which can lead to such things as cyberbullying.
Snowberger said parents may be unaware of how that affects their children.
“They’re not seeing what their kids are engaging with in communications on the technology platforms, and so while we think our kids are cruising along doing well, for all we know they are being cyberbullied through social media,” he said.
McLachlan said she did not deal with any cyberbullying incident while she was teaching but did experience more “sass” from students that could be based on the anonymity of electronic interaction.
“I know that when you are online you can say things and there’s no direct consequence for it. Some kids say it anonymously, some put it on somebody’s Facebook ... and there’s no face-to-face contact, and I think they kind of bring that into the classroom,” she said.
Technology also presents an issue that is common to teachers of all grade levels: distraction.
That is particularly true during adolescence when the frontal lobe, which is responsible for “executive functions,” such as impulse control, decision-making and delaying gratification, develops.
Null said that means teens don’t have the processors to deal with multitasking and impulse controls such as responding to a text or phone call while in a classroom.
“I have trouble managing that, frankly, and I ostensibly have a frontal lobe that works. To expect 13-year-olds to do that is just not developmentally appropriate,” she said.
Despite the effects of technology, to ignore its benefits to the world and exclude it from education isn’t an option, Farnum said.
“It’s the future, and our kids are going to live in it,” he said.
Most District 9-R classrooms enforce a no-smartphones policy, but some teachers, including McLachlan during her time at DHS, use apps that allow students to interact with the lesson and gauge comprehension, Snowberger said.
“The old ‘raise your hand if you understand’ doesn’t really get those who don’t understand. ... We typically want to be with the group, so if everyone else’s hand is raised, I’m gonna raise it,” he said.
With non-mobile technology, such as computers, the school district has shifted to embedding them into lessons rather than having special computer classes.
That shows children that technology is a tool to be used to increase efficiency, instead of a platform isolated from the rest of their lives.
McLachlan said she recently saw a successful implementation at a Ridgway elementary school where a teacher set up a series of stations that kids went through, some of which used technology and some that did not.
Kids would rotate between stations where they would have a book read to them on a computer to ones where they would read books to each other or themselves.
She said it allowed students with different learning styles to explore literacy options.
Null said educators struggle to find the best methods for implementing technology in the classroom, and teaching when and when not to use it is just as important as teaching information literacy so children are not taking everything they find online at face value.
She added that teachers should avoid the temptation of “gamification” of lessons because it sets the unrealistic expectation that learning is only worth doing if it is fun.
“Learning to do anything and get anywhere in life is just work, and sometimes it’s not fun and sometimes you need to write each spelling word five times and it’s not that interesting,” Null said.