Over the years, technology has become an important part of young people’s lives. From text messaging on cell phones to communicating via Facebook, young people now have many ways to find entertainment and engage with others on the internet. As technology becomes increasingly present in children’s lives, however, questions arise regarding the effects of technology on the social and psychological development of young people. How does technology affect young people’s sense of identity? Does “virtual” communication hinder youth’s ability to effectively communicate with others in reality? Research indicates that, while technology can improve young people’s development in some ways, it can also diminish their ability to interact in the real world.
After examining over fifty studies on the effects of technology on youth, Dr. Patricia Greenfield of UCLA found an increase in children’s visual reasoning skills over the past fifty years. Children can now process and evaluate visual information more effectively than young people in the past. Dr. Greenfield also discovered that young people are better at multitasking than their predecessors, a result perhaps of engaging complex visual stimuli encountered in computers and video games.
According to Dr. Kathryn Montgomery of American University, technology can also increase youth’s capability to socially network with others in a virtual setting.
“Technology can be used as a social tool to navigate social relationships and develop friendships. These technologies can be used for empowering people to be involved in democracy and in political causes.” Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter enable young people to maintain relationships online and even form virtual friendships based on common interests (even though the two have never met).
There are also negative consequences to technology in young people’s lives. Dr. Greenfield found that technology reduces critical reasoning and attention span, which results in diminished ability to concentrate on a single point for a long time. Not only does this harm children’s capacity to focus in school, it also detracts from youth’s ability to process and evaluate information. The prevalence of technology in children’s lives could hurt their capability to do well academically, especially in high school and college, where critical reasoning plays an important role in determining the success of a student.
The negative consequences of technology are not merely cognitive. Repetitive stress injury (RSI) has the potential to plague young people who spend long hours at the computer. Rather than exercising or engaging in physical activity, children now spend time sitting in one location for an extended period of time, resulting in cramped muscles and even obesity. Physical therapists are now seeing patients as young as eight years old with symptoms of RSI, a trend that seems to be increasing over time.
Perhaps the most scathing argument against the pervasiveness of technology in youth’s lives is the lack of genuine communication in reality. Texting, instant messaging, and interacting on social networking sites has replaced real-world conversation. Instead of learning valuable social skills by interacting with others in reality, kids are now communicating in a detached setting devoid of authentic emotional exchange. The argument is that youth will be ill-prepared for the demands of communicating as adults in the workplace, where social skills play a vital role in determining a person’s success.
Dr. Montgomery, however, suggests that virtual communication is merely different and not necessarily negative. Regarding the effects of technology on communication, Montgomery says: “It’s done differently now. It’s true that there’s not person to person communication. There has been research that the use of text messaging enables children to avoid difficult conversations. They rely on text messaging but they don’t want to go out anymore. They might be losing skills, but I don’t think we know.”
So is there an ultimate verdict on the effects of technology on youth? Perhaps the most reasonable answer is this: it’s too early to tell. We won’t know for sure until the current youth develop into adults.
For now, we can study the immediate consequences of technology on youth and make predictions for them as they grow into adulthood. But the final evaluation will probably be mixed, just as it is for most technological innovations. Do the merits of a particular innovation outweigh the disadvantages? In the case of today’s youth, only time will tell.