My three-year-old daughter’s face wavers in shifting patterns of light from the mini iPad held in her hands.
As she lies on the couch, with her feet resting on my knees, I watch the small twin screens reflected in her lenses. Her bright blue irises flare with each change of scene. The obsidian darkness of her tiny pupils grows and shrinks beneath.
Behind this diorama – a juxtaposition between modern technology and ancient evolution – something remarkable is occurring.
Each sight and sound will be converted by specialized receptor cells into nerve impulses. Traveling at speeds in excess of 100 meters per second, they will reach her cerebral cortex through a complex exchange of information through nerve cell synapses.
Since birth, her brain has more than tripled in volume as it constantly builds the new neural circuits needed to process all the new stimuli she is bombarded with. In the first few years of her life, her brain has formed approximately one million new neural connections every second.
Growing up in a small Australian country town, in the late 70s and early 80s, I was exposed to relatively simple environmental factors. Our black and white television was rarely watched. Photos took a week to develop. Letters were delivered to the mailbox. Upon starting Prep, I couldn’t count beyond 10 or even spell my own first name.
In comparison, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter knows all the letters of the alphabet thanks to the ABC Kids app. She takes pictures on her iPad, can write her own name, and do basic addition and subtraction.
So, is she smarter than I was at her age?
The simple answer is, “yes,” according to University of Otago Emeritus Professor James Flynn. Flynn is a political scientist who became famous in the 80s for his landmark discovery that, from the 30s onwards, there has been substantial gains in IQ scores in many parts of the world. This improvement has continued up to the present day and has become known as the “Flynn Effect”.
“The brain is like a muscle and there is no doubt that it will respond to stimulation,” Flynn says. “To give you an illustration, in 1900 no one drove a car. In 1950 everyone drove a car. Between 1900 and 1950 the hippocampus grew in size because it’s the map reading part of the brain. Today, thanks to the automated guidance system, the size of the hippocampus is going down because we are no longer doing the relevant exercise.”
As early as 2008, researchers were discovering the beneficial effects of computer use on the brain. In a ground-breaking study scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that internet use appears to boost brain function. And, according to a Journal of Molecular Psychiatry paper, video game exposure induces structural brain plasticity and improves our performance on attention demanding and perceptual tasks.”
But as to whether these brain expansion effects leads to an improvement in complex life skills, such as problem solving and planning, remains open to debate.
“People think that any stimulation of the brain necessarily pays big dividends,” says Flynn. “But it’s not clear if there’s a transfer to more socially significant cognitive skills. The rise of IQ has limited effects when accompanied by the rise of ignorance.”
Dr. David Bickham, research scientist at Harvard University’s Centre on Media and Child Health, has spent more than 20 years exploring how media, as an environmental factor, can influence children’s physical, mental, and social development. When I spoke to him on the phone from Massachusetts, USA, it was 9 p.m. local time and his two children, aged three and five, were asleep in bed. “It’s important to differentiate between general media use – just exposure to devices like tablets – with programs that are specifically designed for education,” says Bickham. “The evidence shows pretty convincingly that it’s not so much the exposure to a device that makes the difference, but it’s what you do with it, and the content you’re exposed to.”
Even with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent reduction of recommended maximum screen time for children under the age of five to just one hour a day, Bickham, as both a researcher and parent, believes restrictions like these have become a moot point. “In a world where screen use and technology is so pervasive, time of use starts to be more difficult to measure and less important to make guidelines on,” he says. “The more pertinent question to ask ourselves is: What’s most important developmentally for the kid, and is the kid getting that? And if they are, then I don’t think some screen time is going to hurt.”
Bickham does caution, however, that parents should use media mindfully, and it should never replace important parent-child interactions which are critical for a child’s development. “I have not seen anything that would convince me that devices are giving a child something which is stimulating them in a way beyond an activity like reading with their parent,” he says. “We really are interpersonal beings and our information comes from our interactions with other people. The parent-child exchange that goes on with shared activities cannot be replicated artificially with a device.”
Regardless of the debate surrounding the potential benefits or negatives of screen time on the brain, it is indisputable that computers, tablets, and smartphones are here to stay.
According to the Internet Live Stats site there are currently more than 3.6 billion people with an Internet connection, and the Statista company estimates there are 2.3 billion smartphone users in the world today. Device detection organization DeviceAtlas reports that 87 per cent of smartphone users say they “always have their phone at their side, day and night,” and, startlingly, a joint US–Canadian study found that one in 10 people check their phone during sex.
Daniel Battaglia, 34, is founder and CEO of online business ParkingMadeEasy and a self-confessed “device addict” who epitomizes today’s tech-savvy population. He believes modern technology has definitely made him smarter. “Having a connected device provides instant access to so much human knowledge that was never easily accessible before,” he says. “It gives me the freedom to connect with people, learn new things, keep up-to-date with news, and grow my own business. And it’s all done remotely, from anywhere.”
Not everyone is so effusive. Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists president Professor Malcolm Hopwood says while there is no doubt that devices have been a wonderful aid to society, there exists a subset of people who have become overly overdependent on them. “We are seeing concerns where devices can blur the boundaries between people’s work life and their personal life,” says Hopwood. “It’s really important that people get sufficient time away from work. Personal devices can make that difficult.”
So, considering all this conflicting advice, am I going to turn out to be the mother of an internet-enhanced genius or a smartphone-addled addict? Or will such an artificial distinction soon not exist anymore?
These thoughts worry me as I stand up and touch my daughter gently on the cheek.
“It’s bedtime,” I say.
Tears and tantrums follow. As they do virtually every night. Even when I promise to read her The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.
It’s time for Plan B.
My daughter’s tears abruptly stop when she sees the envelope in my hand. It’s plastered with animal stickers and her name and address are written on the front in big pink glitter letters.
“What’s that, Mummy?”
“It’s a card,” I say. “It’s for you.”
I give her the envelope and watch as her fingernails frantically pry open the flap. She squeals in delight when she tugs out the card. It’s a cardboard cut-out of a chicken complete with yellow feathers and big black googly eyes.
“Grandma made it,” I say.
My daughter giggles and I smile. Happy that, at least for now, there are still some things that screen time just can’t beat.