MacManus: Do devices rewire kids' brains?

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Technology columnist Richard MacManus is wary of alarmist talk that digital devices are completely 'rewiring' childrens' brains, but argues parents should take an active approach to managing use of these devices.

Nobody really knows the true impact of digital technology on our children, because this is the first generation to grow up in an all-digital environment. However, some are questioning whether digital technology is doing more harm than good to our kids.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, British scientist Baroness Susan Greenfield said she was concerned children were losing the ability to think for themselves, empathise and communicate with each other. Greenfield, whose speciality is brain physiology, believes social media and gaming cause children to want “something every moment to distract them so they can’t have their own inner narrative, their own inner thought process.”

The solution, she thinks, is for children to do more activities with a beginning, middle and an end – such as reading books, playing sport or gardening.

While I think Greenfield’s argument is overly alarmist, there is some scientific evidence to support her claims. Plus, common sense tells us that, yes, of course it’s a good idea to encourage our kids to read books and play outside.

However, it’s not just in their play time that kids are using digital technologies. This year digital technology was introduced into New Zealand’s national school curriculum, for all age groups. So should we be worried about how immersed our kids are in the digital world every day?

I reached out to Bronwyn Wood and Louise Starkey , two senior lecturers at Victoria University’s School of Education, for a local perspective.

The pair were not impressed by Susan Greenfield’s comments, calling it a “moral panic approach to new digital technologies.” Further, they told me the idea that brains are being “rewired” hasn’t been substantiated in research.

But Wood and Starkey are also wary of what they call “the other extreme”; people who “panic about the slow pace of integration of new technologies” in New Zealand and fear being left behind the rest of the world.

“Both of these extremes are foisted upon schools who are expected to respond,” they said. “Both extremes take our attention away from what it takes to provide children with a deep education.”

The two lecturers used the term “digital integration” to describe the approach schools across the world – including in New Zealand – are taking to digital technology.

“In New Zealand, each school can decide on the pace of change and the level of integration which impacts on the experience of teachers and students in the classroom,” they said.

The Ministry of Education’s new digital curriculum was introduced to schools in term one of this year and will become compulsory in 2020. To support the digital decree, the Government has committed funding to help schools improve teachers' skills and obtain digital equipment. That government support is much needed, according to Wood and Starkey.

“The extent to which schools have adopted digital technologies varies widely,” they said, “and there is still evidence of significant differences in between schools in wealthier and poorer communities.”

Despite the troubling caveat that some of our children still don’t have enough access to digital devices, it’s clear that our government is very pro-digital technology. I fully agree with that policy, because, like it or not, our society is now almost fully dependent on digital technologies. We simply have to prepare our children for this reality. Not to mention our kids will be the generation that has to deal with the inevitable AI crises of the future; such as mass unemployment and the unknowable consequences of autonomous cars. We need to train them up to be much more digital savvy than we adults currently are.

Is it harming their brains

But let’s return to the original question for this column: are our kids being over-exposed to digital technology currently and is it harming their brains?

To Wood and Starkey, it’s not how much technology is used by kids – it’s what they’re learning with it.

“Whether using technology in schools or not, the important point is that the learning experiences of children are rich and relevant,” they told me. “The key is how we use technology, rather than how much we use technology. Learning requires persistence and if technology is used superficially, it won’t promote deep learning.”

When it comes to superficial use of digital technology, my own brain immediately thinks of social media. While kids may not be using Facebook (which is R13) or Twitter (which I suspect kids think is only for old people), they are making full use of YouTube, Instagram and newer social media apps like Snapchat. Much of the content kids consume on those platforms is frivilous; although to be fair, you could say the same about most of the content we adults consume on Facebook and Twitter.

Regardless, it’s the over-reaching power of services like YouTube and Facebook which makes one wonder if regulation is needed, to help prevent children (and their parents) from getting addicted and from misusing these digital technologies.

'Education better than restriction'

Wood and Starkey agree that legislation is needed to address digital harm, however they would rather see the Government employ “an educative approach, rather than a restrictive approach, to support children’s well-being in a digital environment.” That includes educating parents in how to manage their kids’ digital technology usage.

“Global research suggests that parents who take an authoritative approach to managing children’s online activities, such as monitoring behaviour, usage and access, appear to protect children in the digital landscape and enhance their educational outcomes,” they said.

There’s no shortage of local organisations that can help parents do this; Netsafe and The Parenting Place are two that come to mind.

In summary, it’s probably true that our brains are being re-wired by digital technology – and that it effects children most of all. So yes, over-exposure to digital devices is something to be wary of as we raise our kids. But we also have to accept it’s the world we now live in. Rather than attack the technology, we should adapt and figure out how our children can use it best.