The Impact of Computer Use on Children's Neurological Development
In recent years, our society has been inundated with rapid technological developments particularly when it comes to computers. Sociologists have noted the impact that the increase in computer use could have (and to some degree already has had) on our society as they begin to replace human contact (4). Between 1996 and 1999 alone, the number of homes with internet access doubled (1). On a neurological level, this is concerning because increased computer use may develop habits that strengthen certain areas of the brain and as a result do not allow others to strengthen to their full potential. This is especially concerning when it comes to children because their brains continue to develop through adolescence. In 1999, children were spending an average of 24 minutes more with the computer per day than just one year before (1). How will this technology that previous generations have not been raised with impact the neurological development of children? This paper is an exploration of the habits that computer use reinforces and the impact this has on the development of attention and chemical responses to emotions in the brain.
Attention is developed over the course of many years and occurs in three stages. In order for this to happen it is necessary for the brain to practice activities that hone attention skills. Computers often conflict with these activities that are needed for one to develop the ability to pay attention. The first stage occurs until age seven (4). During this period, children learn how to be selectively attentive. Too much sensory input during this stage can cause children to either tune out this input when it is not necessary to do so or to become “jumpy” and over-stimulated by input that does not warrant that kind of response(4). Computers present a danger during this stage of development because they stimulate multiple senses simultaneously. If exposed to computers too much, children do not have the opportunity to develop the ability to pay attention to one activity. The second stage occurs in later childhood typically between ages seven and nine. This stage is particularly critical because it is when “response organization” is developed. Response organization is the ability to “form a plan and act on it in an organized, efficient manner(4).” Most computer programs do not allow for children to do this. Rather than requiring that they determine the appropriate sequence of steps that must be taken in order to reach a particular goal, the computer has these steps mapped out. Some computer programs provide more opportunities for this development, but the majority does not (4). The last stage of attention development is sustained attention, or the ability to stay focused for a period of time and occurs from age eleven on. This stage is important for teenagers as they continue to groom their ability to focus for long periods of time (2)(4). Again, too much time spent on the computer results infringes on the brain’s chance to gain this crucial skill.
There has been little (if any) hard research on the impact that computers have on attention development, however the nature of computers with multiple sensory inputs implies that they provide too many distractions and over-stimulation. These conditions are not conducive to what children need to develop the neurological base necessary to pay attention. Some argue that computers have merely prompted humans to develop a different kind of focus that emphasizes the ability to multitask rather than just focus on one activity (5). But how much multitasking is too much? There are still situations where people are required to focus for long periods of time on things that are not necessarily of interest to them. After all, not every single college lecture or project at work will be interesting yet it is necessary to be able to pay attention in order to be successful. Neurologists and psychologists have emphasized the importance of the developmental milestones when it comes to attention (4). What will happen when this generation of children is required to use attention skills they have not sufficiently developed? Will our society change to accommodate their lack of skills? Or will we still value those individuals who can pay attention in the traditional sense?
Another important impact that computers have the brain is on chemical responses to emotions. Computer games or even subliminal images cause neurological reactions in humans. There are physical responses to fear, anxiety, or excitement that all humans experience and are unable to control (3). Hormones or chemicals such as adrenaline cause increased heart rate and muscle changes for the fight or flight response. These responses can become an ingrained physical habit if one is repeatedly exposed to computer games--even educational games. “The full effects of such “downshifting” to primitive fight or flight responses are unknown, but they could habituate the brain to a need for “extreme” experience or chronically affect blood pressure”(4). The overuse of computers during development may also cause the prefrontal cortex (which regulates emotion, complex thought, and problem solving (3)) to become idle resulting in a lazy or underdeveloped executive system (4).
The development of these habits has serious implications for future generations. This aspect almost seems more dangerous than a lack of attention skills because it is a physical response that becomes a habit of the body. After all, humans can consciously decide whether to continue working on something that is not particularly interesting, but necessary for them to complete, but they are not able to consciously decide if they should release adrenaline into their system. In this sense, it is important that habits are developed that do not cause children to grow up with these physical responses at inappropriate times.
Given the increased use of computers in schools it is curious that there has not been more research on how computers directly impact brain activity in children. In fact, much of the literature that exists about computer use and children champions its advantages (1)(7). While it is true that computers can certainly supplement the learning process and aide children who have learning disabilities so that they are able to comprehend material that would otherwise prove challenging, they must be used in moderation (7). Jane Healy writes, “The way children use computers may have powerful long-term effects on their minds. The main reason, of course, is that using any medium affects the underlying neural circuitry that is being established during childhood and adolescence” (4). Before parents and educators become too excited about children using computers, the long-lasting neurological impacts must be taken into account.
(1) “Greenfield, Patricia M; Elisheva F. Gross; Robert E. Kraut; Kaveri Subrahmanyam.
“The Impact of Home Computer Use on Children’s Activities and
Development.” The Future of Children. Vol. 10.2 (2000): 123-144.
(2) Cordes, Colleen and Edward Miller. “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in
Childhood.” Alliance for Childhood.
(3) Neuroscience for Kids. Eric H. Chudler. 12 April 2007. University of Washington. <http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/functional.html>
(4) Healy, Jane. Failure to Connect. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.
(5) Aratani, Lori. “Teens Can Multitask, But What Are Costs?” Washington Post, 26 February 2007. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp
(6) Conte, Christopher. “How Access Benefits Our Children: Connecting Our Kids to the
World of Information.” Washington, D.C.: National Telecommunications and
Information Administration, 1999.