American children and teens now spend an average of seven and a half hours a day watching TV, playing video games or surfing the Internet, according to this year’s report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s an entire hour more media time than a similar survey found five years ago, and it doesn’t even include the hour-and-a-half that youths spend texting, or the half-hour they’re talking on their cell phones.
“When you add in multitasking, these kids are spending 11 hours a day with technology,” says Gary Small, MD, director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Center on Aging and author of “iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind” (Collins Living, 2008).
But that’s not necessarily bad news. Increasing evidence links all this screen time to several positive outcomes. Researchers from Beth Israel Medical Center and Iowa State University have shown that surgeons who play video games for more than three hours a week make fewer errors in the operating room (Archives of Surgery, Vol. 142, No. 2). In 2007, at the University of Rochester, a team of scientists led by Daphne Bavelier, PhD, reported that fast-paced video games improved players’ reaction times, as well as their ability to pick out details amid clutter (Psychological Science, Vol. 18, No. 1).
And in perhaps one of the most highly publicized studies examining the effects of technology on the brain, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, led by Small, found that surfing the Web may actually increase brain activity, particularly in areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving and decision-making (American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Vol. 17, No. 2).
Yet many researchers also worry that the digital age has come with sizable downsides, including increased distraction, trouble focusing in the classroom and stunted interpersonal skill development. The Kaiser study, for example, found that nearly half of the heaviest 8- to 18-year-old media users — those who consumed at least 16 hours a day — had school grades of mostly C or lower, compared with 23 percent of those who consumed media three hours a day or less. The heaviest media users were also more likely to report that they were bored or sad, that they got into trouble and that they were not happy at school.
The proliferation of technology has also created a new form of the generation gap, pitting digital natives, who were born into a world of computer technology, against digital immigrants, who may adapt to new technologies more reluctantly. These varying experiences with technology can fracture families and create conflict in the workplace, Small says.
For example, the human aging process, characterized by decreased memory capacity and difficulty maintaining attention, can make it difficult for older adults to learn new skills, says Neil Charness, PhD, a Florida State University psychology professor. In fact, according to a 2001 study in Psychology and Aging (Vol. 16, No. 1), led by Charness, it may take older adults inexperienced with technology twice as long as younger adults to learn a new technology, and they tend to make more errors when interacting with devices that have small keypads or screens, such as smart phones.
“It’s not that [older adults] don’t want to or that they’re unable to learn to use technology, but if the technology is difficult to learn or poorly designed, it may be harder physically and mentally to interact with technology,” Charness says.
Psychologists and other mental health professionals are working to bridge this generational divide by helping older adults adapt to new technology and nurturing the development of younger adults’ interpersonal skills.
In the workplace, Small says, psychologists can encourage employers to pair a technology-skilled young adult with a corporate-savvy older adult, a move that may help the junior associate improve his or her face-to-face business skills while allowing the digital immigrant to pick up some computer tips. Psychologists are also urging technology designers to create products with the needs of older adults in mind, Charness says.
Research examined in Current Directions in Psychological Science (Vol. 18, No. 5) suggests, for example, that cell phones for older adults should minimize background noise and include simplified menus and large fonts. Websites need high-contrast backgrounds and text, larger fonts, minimal scrolling and navigation aids, Charness adds. (For more information, see “Questionnaire”.)
As for helping parents wean children off technology, psychologists are emphasizing the importance of two research-backed ways to pry kids away from the TV or computer: setting family rules for screen time and getting kids moving, be it through organized sports or free-time play. That’s according to a survey of 7,415 children and teens, published in the July Pediatrics (Vol. 126, No. 1). Small encourages parents to establish tech-free zones that ban the use of technology in certain places, such as the dinner table. They can also set a good example for their children by limiting their own use of technology and by taking part in physical activities as a family, he says.
“All of us, no matter what age, need to find a way to balance our online and offline time.”
Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.