Disconnected Children

“Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” was written to warn mothers of the lonely life of cowboys. As sung by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, the warning cry is clear: this is a sad and hard life and mothers would want to prevent this loss of connection with other people if they only knew.

“If they only knew,” I often think to myself when I see young children using smart technology in restaurants or doctor’s offices. They sure do a good job of keeping kids quiet, don’t they? More and more evidence is leading doctors and educators to believe that there is an expense to the luxury of keeping kids quiet that goes way beyond dollars and cents. Our brain is a muscle; it gets stronger when it is exercised. Like any muscle, it will atrophy if it is not challenged; comfort and ease will prevent the brain from getting stronger. If a child is not properly challenged, relational skills like imitation and eye contact will not develop. Rather than benefit from the volumes of information at one’s finger tips, young children come to believe that all of life is as easy as the swish of a finger. Learning requires imitation, focus and perseverance, none of which are required when using an iPad.

Many children are significantly benefited by advances in technology. Children with speech and motor delays have been empowered to communicate via assistive technology. Why then does the same technology have the opposite effect on other children? Applied effort is the amount of effort applied to learning and it has a direct impact on the amount of learning accomplished. Little effort=little learning. Great effort=great learning. This is why smart technology is so tricky: it requires very little effort to have access to great storehouses of information. Do you remember when you used to have phone numbers memorized? Why bother now, right? Your smart phone can do that for you. Children develop the same mindset to facts and other information.

Memorization is not a thing of the past; our brains do not build connections without it. Memorization is hard work, but it makes you smarter. Thankfully, our grammar school teachers have invented myriads of songs, chants and other great mnemonic devices to make the hard work of memorization fun.

Connected to technology, disconnected to people. In my own limited experience, I have found that children who have significant amounts of daily access to iPads, iPhones and the like at a young age tend to struggle connecting with people. They struggle to make eye contact, follow directions or imitate others and often it has an impact on their classroom experience. I've also noticed that children who struggle to connect with people tend to want to connect to technology. It is very likely that these children would struggle to connect with people regardless of technology and that technology simply compounds a natural tendency. Bottom line, for some people anything that makes learning passive is a bad idea.

Video games are designed for short attention spans so that gamers will not get bored and switch to a new obsession. That’s right; children who play video games and watch a lot of television are developing shorter attention spans. Attention spans start off very short (a few seconds for a baby) and are lengthened as children make eye contact with their mothers during feedings, imitate them during play and persevere when they encounter difficulties. If attention spans are not challenged to stretch, they will remain short and sporadic and this will impact their success in school. How do you lengthen an attention span? Start small and add perseverance.

If learning is always easy, our ability to pay attention will not get stronger. Overuse of technology impacts children’s abilities to make eye contact, imitate and persevere. This leads to children who are disconnected, easily frustrated, and ultimately lonely. Lonely? Yes, because although technology is entertaining and keeps kids quiet, it doesn't provide the same benefits as relationships and conversations. Children who spend more time connecting with technology tend to lack the skills in how to connect with their peers. As their peers mature, they lag behind and each year the gap widens as both groups learn (or fail to learn) new skills. A disconnected child will ultimately have fewer meaningful friendships. In addition, when life gets hard (as it always does) they will not have the skills to cope. What does one need to cope? Perseverance. 

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up disconnected.