We were privileged last night to listen to a fascinating presentation from Professor Donna Cross on the subject of "How is technology use transforming children's and adolescents' development and learning" which was the subject of Donna's Churchill Fellow Report, the content of which can be found here.
Donna is a Professor with the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Western Australia and the Telethon Kids Institute.
Donna and her co-researchers have been awarded more than $21m in research funding since 1999, including eight NHMRC grants, six ARC grants and 34 WA Health Promotion Foundation research grants.
This funding has supported applied intervention research, including more than 30 large empirical trials, addressing child and adolescent health promotion issues related to mental health, cyber safety, injury control, drug use control and healthy lifestyles. These included two large studies involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
For her services to children’s health and wellbeing research, Donna received the 2012 WA Australian of the Year Award, and in 2015 was inducted as a Fellow to the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. Most recently, Donna was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and a 2017 NHMRC Senior Fellowship
The use of digital technology clearly has benefits, not the least of which is immediate access via the Internet to everything society currently knows. These benefits however, are related to a child’s developmental stage, his/her temperament and other characteristics, how and where the technology is used and its content and design. This fellowship found that digital technology use does appear to:
- increase opportunities for social connection and support
- provide some scaffolding to build children’s language skills when used with adult interaction
- enhance some children’s ability to maintain attention
- improve children’s visual-spatial capabilities
- enable the scanning of large amounts of information to identify details
- provide access health promotion messages and support networks
- raise awareness of current issues and promote community engagement
- increase some children’s / adolescents’ reaction times
This list of potentially positive outcomes contrasts with possible negative effects through childhood to late adolescence as a result of problematic (mostly excessive) digital technology use including:
- cognitive, language and social/emotional delays
- poor executive function (impulse control, self regulation, mental flexibility) and rapid shifts in attention affecting information processing and attention span
- sleep problems
- higher incidence of depression
- unhealthy body weight, including obesity
- physical inactivity
- ‘Super’ peer – normative (desirable) influence for alcohol use/overuse, illicit substance use, high risk sexual behaviours and other harmful behaviours such as self harm and disordered eating
- loss of privacy / confidentiality
- provision of inaccurate information
- exposure to inappropriate and unsafe content or contacts.
It will be important for future research to investigate the best ways to maximise the benefits and prevent or reduce the potential harms of digital technology to guide national and international, laws, policy and practice.