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10 Points Where the Research Behind Banning Handheld Devices for Children Is Flawed

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You may have come across Cris Rowan's popular HuffPost piece explaining 10 reasons handheld devices should be banned for children under 12. You may also have read the rebuttal from a librarian mom who explains why she will continue to give her children handheld devices. While the pro-device author explains the benefits of handhelds, what she doesn't uncover is that the research cited by the original author doesn't support her claims.

In fact, the research cited in the Rowan piece is so unsupportive of her claims, it seems possible that the real motive behind the article was to test the reader's gullibility. If readers had dug a little deeper, they'd find the truth.

The research focuses mainly on passive television consumption and video games that are either simple or for mature audiences. Much of it also is focused, not on pre-teens, but rather on teens and adults. The research shows a dearth of findings around the type of technology use in which the overwhelming majority of children engage.

Video games themselves come in many flavors, varieties and levels of complexity, a fact the article ignores. For example, today's video games often provide complex interactive stories through which players navigate. While some are simple video games, others are Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) like Minecraft and World of Warcraft. Innovative educators have created complete educational curricula around them. Interactive programs like Footsteps 2 Brilliance are teaching young people to read using research-based interactive techniques that a book is not built to provide. Young people are playing music in iPad bands. See what that looks like here. They are fascinated with geography using apps with wild popularity like Stacked States. They are learning about physics and geometry via apps like Angry Birds. They are writing more than ever as well as reading on their handheld devices. Perhaps most important is that technology allows us to virtually reach out and touch someone, providing access to experts and others around the world who share our interests. This is happening via social networking like Facebook and Twitter, video conferencing platforms like Skype and Google Hangout, or via resources like Scratch which teach basic computer programing.

Tech savvy parents and educators know that all these things are good for young people. This is why the Rowan article left some of us scratching our heads. Rather than acknowledge any of the amazing things children are doing with their devices, the article instead focused on couch potato zombies. Most of us are alarmed at the sight of a child passively staring at a screen or playing simple or needlessly violent video games; often we adults experience the addictive nature of games ourselves and understand that it is not what is best for children. However this article focused almost entirely on these activities. Parents and educators should not be easily fooled. Handheld devices provide the ability to do much more.

I am fortunate to have had the chance to observe and teach the best use of these devices. I'm calling on parents, teachers and government agencies to use common sense and empower students with the freedom to learn using handheld devices.

Following are 10 reasons the research behind the call-to-action to ban devices is flawed.

1) American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)

The AAP talks about screen time and media use, but if you look at the recommendations, they are all about TV time. Take a look at their recommendations here. You will find no mention of how young people interactively use technology. There was also a journal article cited from the AAP which is used as evidence for decreased ability to self regulate, but again, it is not referring to handheld devices. It is a study about children watching cartoons. You can take a look at that research here. Finally there is research presented to suggest that handhelds emit harmful radiation. But the research cited says no such thing. In fact it says The National Cancer Institute has stated that studies have not demonstrated that radio frequency energy from cell phones cause cancer.

2) US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health

This research is used to point to handhelds causing issues with executive functioning and attention deficit, cognitive delays, impaired learning, increased impulsivity. You can look at this decade-old research here and you'll find it is talking about television exposure, not technology use.

Another article is mentioned that is supposed to link technology use and increased obesity. Instead, the research, which you can see here, studies televisions in the bedrooms of Hispanic children.

3) University of Bristol - Peach Project Study

This study was used to point out psychosis in children exposed to too much screen time, but again, it is pointing to passive television and simple video games. "Watching TV or playing computer games for more than two hours a day is related to greater psychological difficulties irrespective of how active children are."

4) Boston College Study

This study is reported to say that children are sleep deprived. This is true, however, it then says the problem is "probably" due to smartphones. We know, however, that the research is clear. School has created a national sleep crisis. Another problem is over-scheduling our kids. It's no wonder that after a long day of school and activities young people want some of their own downtime and they get that via connecting with peers, reading books, and engaging in other such activities all accessible via technology.

5) TED Talk by Dr. John J. Ratey

This TED Talk does not indicate we need to reduce screen time. Instead Ratey tells schools that movement enhances attention and learning ability. To remedy this we need to give students more opportunities to move during the school day. If we're truly concerned about obesity, we will find ways to restore recess, and let students leave their desks and move around.

6, 7, 8) Mentzoni 2011, Shin 2011, Liberatore 2011

These pieces were cited as proof that technology causes problems like attention deficit, autism, bipolar disorder, psychosis and problematic child behavior. The problem is they don't do that. Here is what each of the studies were actually looking at.

6) Mentzoni 2011
This study was not about technology causing addiction, but rather it looked at what caused addiction and effects on physical and mental health in .6% of a population of young males in Norway. Interestingly, they found no correlation between video game addiction and physical health.

7) Shin 2011
This is a study about male industrial workers in Korea. It also looks at internet addiction as a symptom NOT cause of other issues.

8) Liberatore 2011
This doesn't say stay away from handhelds. It says that parents should be involved in ensuring responsible use by their children. Bravo.

9) Psychological science

This research is said to make the point that children are addicted to technology. However, pull back the curtain and that is not what you find. Instead this is another article about one type of technology use: video games with a focus on pornographic and violent games.

10) Journal of American Medical Association study

The author uses this study to explain that early brain development is determined by environmental stimuli, or lack thereof. Stimulation to a developing brain caused by overexposure to technologies (cell phones, internet, iPads, TV), which have been shown to be associated with executive functioning and attention deficit, cognitive delays, impaired learning, increased impulsivity and decreased ability to self regulate, e.g. tantrums. However, this study is not about cell phones, internet, or iPads. It is about passive television exposure. You can take a look here.

The verdict

The real intent of this author is suspect. Did she want to see how many readers would ignore the research and take her words at face value? Did she not understand that handhelds have more beneficial uses than passive television viewing and simple and/or mature video games do ?

Maybe she is showing a distaste for activities that don't bring up warm and fuzzy feelings of her own childhood; she doesn't understand it, and rails against it in the age-old way that adults do. It used to be rock-and-roll; now it is devices. Can't we be more enlightened now? Can't we, the generation who invented these devices and made them irresistible, be smarter than our parents were when they heard the Rolling Stones for the first time?

Or maybe her motives are more sinister than simple ignorance or fear. Perhaps she is preying on adult fears, while drumming up business for the company she works for; a company that profits from telling people how their resources can combat the dangers of technology.

Personally, I'd rather operate a business based on facts, not fear.

Discerning educators and parents: Take a look at the research. Decide for yourself.