Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned that reading books on digital platforms can hinder an individual’s ability to think abstractedly. If you’re reading from a tablet or other digital device, you might be missing out on the bigger picture. Furthermore, reading news stories, features and books from digital screens makes people more inclined to focus on concrete information, thus unwittingly relinquishing their ability to interpret information.
Does this mean that the imagination is being stymied, that our ability to employ our creative and visual imaginations is being constrained, even reduced or hindered by the very technology that is supposed to enhance our lives?
The way in which people think about things is split into two parts – abstract and concrete. The more distant an object or event is from a person, the more abstract their thoughts are about it. The opposite is true for concrete thoughts, which are specific.
For example, when booking a holiday, people first consider the idea of going on holiday as a general concept, because at that early stage, they are further away from the date of travel. As the date of the holiday gets closer, they start considering more concrete thoughts, like flight times, hotel bookings, car hire and a properly planned itinerary.
As part of research carried out at Dartmouth College, volunteer participants were asked to read a short story from either a printed and thus tactile paper, or from a PDF on a laptop. They were then asked to take a quiz about the story.
In the interests of scientific accuracy, all the reading material was presented using the same print size, font and format in both the digital and print versions. A total of 300 participants, aged 20 to 24, took part in the studies.
Answering questions about the abstract nature of the story, participants using the [non-digital] paper format scored higher on questions about inference, with an average of 66% correct. This was compared to those using the digital platform, who got only 48% of the answers correct.
Answering the concrete questions, participants using the digital format scored better with 73% correct, compared to those using the paper platform, who got 58% of the answers correct.
In the next experiment, the participants were then asked to read a table of information about four, fictitious Japanese car models from either a laptop screen or paper print-out before being asked to select which car model was the more superior. Two thirds of the participants using the printed material reported the correct answer, compared to only 43% of those using the digital platform.
These results seem to confirm that digital platforms might affect the ability of individuals to pay attention. The study does have something to say regarding distraction and mindfulness. It is important to understand what effect this relatively new technology is having on cognition and understanding.
Abstract thinking is an important skill and any deficit in an individual’s ability to think abstractedly would be a backward evolutionary step because the ability to understand is a vital part of human development and reasoning.
This is of particular importance to the current debate about whether children should be allowed to use laptops, tablets or other information technology in classrooms. As smart devices continue to integrate with many facets of daily life, this debate over their place in the classroom is becoming increasingly relevant.
While some argue that laptops aid students in note taking and comprehension, many observers claim they are just another unwelcome distraction.
In a recent investigation, researchers found that students who were permitted to use laptops or tablets in the classroom performed less well than those who did not. The fact is that unrestricted use of devices may affect students in different ways – and that’s not taking into consideration the temptation of checking social media or even doing homework for another class!
Equally worrying is that teachers may even change their own behaviour by interacting in a different way, albeit at an unconscious level, with students who are using devices.
It is well known and understood that the physical act of writing things down assists in establishing memory and I fail to see why schools are allowing this tried and tested system to be side-lined in favour of something that is simply not yet tried and tested or nearly as effective! There is nothing quite like the feel of a real book and being able to physically turn the pages.
There is no doubt that our increasing reliance on modern technology is affecting our memory. Our devices may take many of the stresses and strains out of modern life but long-term there may be a price to pay for this convenience. Remember, there’s no such thing as a free lunch!
A paper co-authored by University College London neuroscientist Sam Gilbert, and Dr Evan Risko, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Waterloo warns that if you rely on computers to store information, the chances are you won’t devote brain space to remembering it. This is known as cognitive offloading.
Another study found that museum-goers given digital cameras remembered objects they had photographed less well than other exhibits, which kind of proves the point – we are inadvertently allowing our brains to become lazy.
We already know that drivers who rely on their GPS remember less about what they had seen along the way – and struggle to retrace the route when asked to drive it again without the aid of the sat-nav.
In another experiment, volunteers who were given general knowledge tests were more likely to doubt their instincts and ‘pass’ on a question if they were told they would be able to look up the answers online later on.
There doesn’t seem to be any upside to this. Some teachers are noticing that technology is making children less able to remember skills such as basic maths and seem to be unable to remember times tables. Dr Kirsty Goodwin, from Sydney, Australia has noted that children who rely heavily on gadgets have shorter attention spans and impaired language skills. It’s impossible to ignore that children are downloading information to their devices instead of relying on (and thus developing) their memory.
The truth is, the long-term consequences of living in a modern, hi-tech environment in which we constantly ‘offload our cognition’ are unknown, although we are now beginning to see and understand the effects.
Even our smartphones, as enormously convenient as they are, giving instant access to unlimited information, photos, music, TV programmes, eBooks, Internet and so on, may be harming our cognitive abilities. In my twenties, I could remember at least half a dozen phone numbers – the only one I can remember now is my own.
Offloading demands onto computers must have an impact at a neurological level on our abilities in both the short and long-term as our lives become more cognitively entangled with technology.
One enlightened headmaster however has introduced a complete ban on mobile phones between the hours of 8.15am and 5.45pm. This includes beak times and lunch hours – anyone caught using a phone during this period is handed a detention.
Headmaster Gregg Davies runs the £18,000-a-year independent Shiplake College in Henley-on-Thames and claims the rule has freed youngsters from the stresses of social media and allowed them to concentrate on their studies – suddenly, a huge distraction has been removed.
Admittedly, the announcement was at first greeted with a certain amount of disbelief, not to mention dismay, but students really are happier now they’ve been relieved of the burden of constantly checking their social media accounts and worrying about what others might be saying about them. Staff were also concerned that online boasting might make some students feel dissatisfied with their own lives – a common and recurring problem amongst the young. Posting only the highlights of otherwise ordinary lives can lead to young people feeling left out and worried that their lives aren’t as exciting as their peers. And then there’s the problem of online bullying – anonymous thanks to Twitter.
The improvement has been noticeable – free time is now more likely to be spent playing sport or engaging in normal face-to-face conversation. As a result, student wellbeing has improved. Students now spend more time outside, interacting with their peers and enjoying the opportunities being in the fresh air presents.
Mr Davies claims sixth formers in particular have shown improvements in the ability to engage in discussion and debate about more important issues and events. One reason for the new rule was that teachers had expressed concern that children’s communication skills were suffering because they were spending less time talking to each other.
Teachers also lead by example and restrict their own mobile use to the office. The benefits brought about by the changes have also been welcomed by parents although the school still encourages the use of tablets and laptops as a teaching aid.
Most telling was that once the initial shock had worn off, the children didn’t miss their devices. They quickly got used to planning where to meet up in advance rather than texting ‘where are you?’ The ability to plan ahead is a vital part of development.
Another study, published by the London School of Economics, found that a ban on phones helps classroom performance. That research found that after schools outlawed mobiles, test scores of pupils aged 16 improved by 6.4%.
Researchers at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, led by Lecturer Dr Margaret Merga, have found that the more electronic devices children have access to, the less likely they are to read. The study involved almost 1,000 Australian school students and looked into how often they read real books and how often they used their devices to read. A surprisingly large number preferred a paperback to an iPad.
Devices that allow children to multitask between reading and surfing the Internet provide distractions that make it more difficult to fully concentrate and comprehend what is in front of them. Published in the journal Computers and Education, the research is concerned that access to a greater range of devices meant that children’s reading frequency was reduced.
Although schools are currently encouraging children to work on their laptops and tablets in class, there is now evidence suggesting this practice does not support their numeracy and literacy skills.
Perhaps the rush to embrace the technology of a Star Trek universe, together with the modern thinking that children prefer to read on screens, is mistaken.
Unless we really want to breed a generation of simpletons hobbled by the inability to communicate and interact properly, all schools should adopt this policy… before it’s too late.
Parents who allow their toddlers and babies to spend more than an hour a day playing on phones, tablets and computers may be causing their children to be sleep deprived.
Sleep plays a key role in children’s development and it could affect their later emotional health, social development and academic achievement. Every hour youngsters spend using devices, costs them an average 15 minutes sleep.
Researchers in the UK conducted a survey of 715 families. They discovered that 51% of children aged six to 11 months and 92% of children aged 25 to 36 months play on devices every day, the average time spent daily being 25 minutes. That equates to six minutes loss of sleep.
With older children, aged from 8 to 18, the average was found to be 44.5 hours per week! Common Sense Media claims that some teens are glued to their screens for as much as nine hours a day. What on earth are parents thinking?
Researchers did warn however, that parents taking part in the study might not always have answered entirely truthfully.
The link between screen use and lack of sleep is difficult to define, but it is thought to be partly because children get over-stimulated, and possibly because parents of toddlers who already sleep less are more likely to let their children play with touchscreens just to keep them occupied.
The more time children spend on screen time, the less likely they are to spend time on more important activities such as homework. Children who spend two to four hours a day using digital devices are 23% less likely to finish their homework to a satisfactory standard. Every additional hour further reduces the chance homework will be completed.
On balance, earlier research has shown that babies who frequently use touchscreens more quickly achieve motor-skill milestones, such as picking up toys, grasping objects with finger and thumb, and transferring objects from one hand to another. So instead of stopping touchscreen use altogether, it might be better to ration it – and of course its content – in a way that would maximise the benefits and minimise any negative consequences.
An additional warning comes from a leading psychologist specialising in child health education, Dr Aric Sigman, warns that very young children can develop an addiction to electronic devices known as ‘Screen Dependency Disorder’ (SDD.)
Dr Sigman’s recommendation is that children should not play with tablets or smartphones before they reach the age of two. Even then, they should have screen time limited to an hour a day until they are at least five.
Writing in the journal of the International Child Neurology Association, he cited evidence showing that excessive exposure to computer screens very early in life alters the structure of the brain. For children who are genetically predisposed to developing dependent habits this can create patterns that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Babies and toddlers are most at risk, but the possibility of long-term damage exists into late teens and even early 20s.
Just as most people who drink won’t become alcoholics, most children won’t become addicted. Even so, early and excessive exposure is more likely to result in adulthood dependency. With this in mind, parents and doctors should follow a ‘principle of precaution’ and limit exposure.
People with screen dependency disorder become preoccupied, withdrawn, lie about how much time they spend on devices and even display withdrawal symptoms if they’re unable to use them. These are the same behaviours found in alcohol, drug and gambling addiction.
SDD is now a rapidly emerging neurological public health issue, yet it’s unfashionable to talk about it because people are reluctant to admit the dangers. A report by Ofcom published in 2016 reported that on average, British three and four-year-olds spend two hours a day staring at screens then stare at TV for another two hours. Children aged five to 15 spend four hours a day staring at computers and tablets, plus two hours of TV.
A 2016 study of 248 children aged five to 17, whose brains were regularly scanned over a three year period, found significant changes to brain tissue density in children who spent long periods playing video games.
Dr Sigman’s view is that SDD is not just a social or cultural issue, it’s a medical issue, and there is a large body of evidence to support this. The Australian government has announced that children below the age of two should not be exposed to screens at all. Britain has no such guidelines, although England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, has urged parents to set their own ‘age-specific maximum times’ to reduce potential damage. This warning has not received the publicity it merits.
Smart phones and tablets are now in every home and some children are playing with them even before they learn how to talk. Scientists are concerned that this could put very young children at higher risk of delayed speech development as they grow. The bottom line is that parents should not allow their children anywhere near a screen until they are at least 18 months old, and for the following reasons…
Researchers from the University of Toronto studied the effects on communication of handheld devices in very young children. This is important work as this generation is the first in human history to have access to these devices from birth.
The team studied nearly 900 children aged between six months and two years. According to the parents, 20% of children used handheld devices for an average of 28 minutes per day. Using a screening test for language delay, the researchers found that the more handheld screen time the child was exposed to, the more likely it was to have delays in expressive speech development. The concern is that for every 30-minute increase in handheld screen time, researchers found a 49% increase in the risk of expressive speech delay.
However, no link was found between handheld device screen time and delays in the development of other communication skills such as body language and social interaction.
The Toronto study is the first to report a link between handheld screen time and increased risk of expressive language delay. The team needs to investigate the impact on longer-term communication outcomes in early childhood. More research is needed in order to fully understand the type and content of screen activity infants are engaging in and to further explore the mechanisms of the link between handheld screen time and speech delay.
The researchers believe their findings support a recent policy recommendation by the American Academy of Paediatrics to discourage any type of screen media use by children younger than 18 months.
Meanwhile in South Korea, Scientists at Chonnam National University Hospital, Seoul, are concerned that children who use their smart phones excessively could be damaging their eyesight. Specifically, they are at greater risk of temporary convergent strabismus – more commonly known as going ‘cross-eyed.’ The condition – which causes the eyes to focus inwards – has rarely been diagnosed in South Korea, but it is now becoming increasingly prevalent.
The number of children studied was only small – but the 12 who were examined were aged between 7 and 16 and used their phones for between four and eight hours a day. The children held their phones between eight and 12 inches from their faces and this proximity caused eyestrain. Medics were able to reverse the symptoms in nine of the children by banning mobile phone use for a period of two months.
South Korea was the first country to recognise video game and computer addiction as a mental illness and to put in place rehabilitation facilities so the Korean authorities are already fully aware and well informed of the problems of excessive technology use.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.