There's never been a shortage of reasons for parents to fear letting their children on the internet. There's the possibility kids could stumble across violent or pornographic material. Their identity or likeness could be stolen. And the threat of predators is so well documented, it had its own show.
And while these things should all be taken seriously by parents, there's a less talked about but much more likely consequence in exposing children to the Internet too early: It may be having an adverse effect on attention spans.
In recent years there's been a major rush to get kids online, both at school and at home. Public schools are pushing for grant money to put more computers in elementary classrooms. And you'd be hard pressed to go to a family restaurant without seeing at least one small child on an iPad.
The most recent available statistics from the Department of Education indicated that in 2009, 97 percent of public school teachers had one or more computers located in the classroom. Daily Internet access for those computers was 93 percent. This brought the overall ratio of students to computers in the classroom to 5.3 to 1.
Of course the parents, teachers, and administrators pushing technology are all in pursuit of a noble cause: educating children for a 21st century economy. But many experts say an over-reliance on technology is obscuring the real aims of learning.
"Today, we forget that digital technology requires responsibility to use and that children may be too young to use it without close supervision," said Kentaro Toyama, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley's school of information, specializing in education technology. "At the same time, we pretend that if you don’t use technology while young, you’d never be able to use it later."
The biggest problem experts like Toyama see in the implementation of educational technology is that it is often viewed as an end unto itself and not a tool through which to achieve broader learning goals. He told the Daily Dot that the same computers that train future software engineers and data journalists are the same machines that are used to "babysit" students while overburdened teachers do other work.
"The theory I subscribe to is that technology amplifies underlying human intent and capacity," Toyama said. "Thus, a school with the firm intent to teach well and with the capacity to do so can benefit from technology; but a school that is either indifferent to its students, or woefully deficient in its teaching capacity will only be burdened by the effort of maintaining the technology."
This view is borne out by a recent Pew survey of teachers, which found that educators had a mixed view on how new technologies helped them perform in their jobs. Though 90 percent of teachers said the Web has a "major impact" on their ability to access educational content and resources, 75 percent said the digital tools add new, unwanted demands upon them. Time that once would have been spent on core subjects like reading and math now has to be devoted to gaining basic proficiency in new, ever-changing computer devices.
It's a cycle that has existed since long before the first Mac showed up in an elementary school computer lab. Toyama notes a repetitive cycle throughout the 20th century regarding how new technologies were supposed to revolutionize education.
"In 1922, Thomas Edison claimed that movies would 'revolutionize our educational system,'" he wrote on his blog. "In 1945, William Levenson, a Cleveland radio station director, suggested that portable radios in classrooms should be 'integrated into school life' alongside blackboards. In the 1960s, governments under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson invested in classroom TV."
Just like in the tale of John Henry, Toyama says that no machine can match the outcomes of skilled, talented educators.
But it's not just the schools where children are being thrust into the world of technology at a young age. More and more children are picking up tablets and smartphones long before they'll even pick up their first lunch box.
There is a booming industry centered around the demand for educational games for young children. For instance, Fisher-Price's Laugh & Learn mobile apps have been downloaded more than 2.8 million times. Fisher-Price says these apps help educate babies by showing them cause-and-effect relationships. But these claims are now the target of a Federal Trade Commission complaint from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC).
The CCFC, which led the campaign to get the makers of the Baby Einstein videos to drop their educational claims, says the developers are manipulating parents into thinking these apps have proven developmental benefits.
"Their false and deceptive marketing creates the impression that their apps effectively educate infants and toddlers, when time with tablets and smartphones is really the last thing very young children need for optimal learning and development," said CCFC Director Susan Linn.
The best way to develop the mind of a young child remains active play and engagement with other people, Linn said. But many parents feel these sorts of games can be healthy and effective for children, when used in moderation.
"Children as young as age 3 are online playing learning games, and by age 7 they are often doing reading and math programs online," said Lynne Kenney, a pediatric psychologist, parenting blogger, and mom.
As a parent, Kenney echo's the belief that technology is not inherently bad. It's how it is used by parents. Though children can surely be engaged by technology, she told the Daily Dot that parents should avoid the temptation to let devices act as de facto babysitters. The rush of dopamine triggered by online games can become addictive to young children whose use is not closely monitored.
Over exposure to technology can even be downright harmful to a child's ability to learn later in life. Numerous studies have shown that too much technology can be detrimental to attention spans.
The Associated Press reports that between 2000 and 2012, the average attention span had shrunk by 4 seconds. Such reduced attention spans make themselves apparent in the way we search the Web. A study by German researchers studied nearly 60,000 page views and found that 17 percent lasted less than four seconds. Conversely, only 4 percent of pageviews lasted more than 10 minutes. They also found on pages with 111 words or less, only about 49 percent of words were read. On average Web pages (593 words) only about 28 percent of text was read. It's not just text either, studies also show that the average length of Web videos is decreasing along with our shortening attention spans.
Author Nicholas Carr, writing for Wired, argued that the extraneous process of evaluating links interfere with children's ability to focus on the actual text.
"Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension," Carr writes.
He added: "A 2007 scholarly review of hypertext experiments concluded that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding. And if links are bad for concentration and comprehension, it shouldn’t be surprising that more recent research suggests that links surrounded by images, videos, and advertisements could be even worse."
It's why even proponents of technology for children, like Kenney, that parents should make unplugging a priority for her children. She said it's important to get kids offline, engaging in play or reading a book.
"Unplugging as a family and interacting in real time is more important than ever," she said.
Illustration by Jason Reed