As parents, it’s nearly impossible to raise a child without feeling some of the effects of technology usage in the home. Kids beg to watch movies on repeat, play colorful games on your phone and are even given homework assignments on the computer. Unfortunately, the increasingly prevalence of technology in our children’s lives has forced us all to question: What is technology really doing to our kids as they grow up? One major point of concern on this topic has been attention.
Parents and teachers alike have claimed to notice a shift in their kid's attention span and their ability to concentrate—whether on schoolwork or on everyday activities at home. But is technology to blame for this inattention? Experts believe so.
The link between technology and attention
Ongoing research has suggested that there are links between technology use and attention deficit problems in children. While it has not be proven that screen time automatically reduces children’s attention spans, there appears to be a strong link between the two—particularly in younger children.
It’s possible that technology has a more significant impact on young children whose minds and bodies are still developing. However, that doesn’t mean technology cannot affect older children or even teens.
A study in Canada found that preschoolers who had more than two hours of screen time per day were five times more likely to display behavioral problems, including inattention, than children who were exposed to screens fewer than 30 minutes per day. The group with more screen time was also more than seven times more likely to exhibit symptoms of ADHD.
Additionally, multiple studies have shown that screen time (including television use and video games) may continue to impact children’s attention as they age. Greater lengths of screen time have been associated with reduced attention, as well as social problems, in children as old as 12.
So, a link has been made between technology and shortened attention spans. But why is this happening? Unfortunately, researchers have not discovered the exact reason.
One possible cause is that, from a young age, the constant distraction and stimulation that technology provides “trains” the mind to be unable to focus on a single thing at one time. Think about it: Your child might be sitting in the living room watching a movie while also playing a game on a tablet. Apps on the tablet push notifications every few minutes, further adding to the distraction. They switch apps, send a message to their friend, then switch back to their game—all within seconds.
If this happens while your child’s brain is still learning how to process information efficiently, it might be affecting that development. Their brains might become used to being constantly stimulated and, ultimately, “rewarded” for it. Therefore, when it’s time to sit and focus on homework or something less exciting, they lack that constant stimulation and instant gratification—losing interest as a result.
It’s important to understand that technology exposure might make children more adept at scanning lots of information quickly, which can be useful in some cases. However, it might also make it difficult for them to focus on a single task, such as reading a lengthy novel. In the traditional classroom setting, this might result in poor grades and classroom disruption.
Is removing screens the answer?
Given the research, your first thought might be to cut your child off from technology as soon as possible. But completely removing your child’s access to technology is not exactly realistic or even possible in many cases—especially as schools increasingly rely on computers and tablets to instruct children.
However, there are ways you can—and should—limit your child’s screen time each day. This may help reduce their risk for developing attention problems, as well as give them time to perform activities that bolster their development in other areas.
- Set age-appropriate time limits: Time limits on screen time should be based on age, according to experts. This is because younger children’s brains are still developing and should be shielded from the persistent stimulation technology can produce. Children between the ages of one and two should have limited access to technology, aside from the occasional high-quality television programming. Children up to age five should be limited to one hour of screen time per day.
- Set ground rules: One of the best ways to cut down on screen time is to lead by example. Firm house rules for technology use can help everyone limit their screen time—not just your kids! Establish media-free time and spaces, such as the dinner table and the bedroom. Make a family media use plan so everyone is on the same page.
- Consider other health areas: Technology has the potential to infringe on other parts of your children’s health, too. Kids going to bed with TVs, phones or tablets in their rooms, might not sleep enough each night, potentially resulting in even less attention and more behavioral problems.
- Encourage other forms of entertainment: Children young and old should engage in lots of forms of activities, from creative and imaginative play to activities that help them develop motor skills. Join your kids in reading books, playing outdoors, playing sports and physical games, doing arts and crafts and other fun activities.
- Try mindfulness: In a way, mindfulness and meditation are the exact opposite of technological stimuli. Mindfulness centers around focusing the mind and relaxing the mind and body together. Doing a short meditation session with your kids each day can teach them to relax and focus without distraction, potentially combatting the hyper-stimulated effects technology can have on their growing minds.
Staying mindful about how much technology your child uses every day and observing its impacts on their attention span can help you stop an attention problem before it worsens. While a technology-free home might not be possible, you can take steps to ensure a healthy balance for your kids.