Redefining safety for children in a technology-obsessed world. An interview with Cris Rowan

Last week I sat down with Cris Rowan, Occupational Therapist and CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc. to discuss the impact of technology on children.  A short article was published in the South China Morning Post today.   http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1610670/steer-children-adopt-healthy-tech-habits.

For the full interview, keep reading…

Q: Most families in Hong Kong live in apartments and have very limited access to outdoor space.   Add to that crowds and an air pollution index (API) that is currently at the maximum measurable level, and taking children outside to connect with nature and to move has its own challenges and dangers.  In urban areas like Hong Kong, the appeal of technology is partially situational.  How does a parent weigh potential dangers and determine what is truly harmful for their children?

ROWAN:  I appreciate the concerns about potential dangers out of doors and can’t speak to the harms of air pollution specifically, but I do know that the consequences of keeping children indoors, disconnected from nature and attached to video games and other technology is causing real problems in the physical and mental health of children. The ways in which we are raising and educating our children with technology are no longer sustainable. Parents have the illusion of safety when their children are inside, but if they inform themselves about the alarming increase in attention problems, poor academics, aggression, impaired sleep, developmental delays that are directly linked to sedentary indoor lifestyles, they will definitely reconsider how to define safety for their children.

Being in nature and physical movement are attention restorative, sensory calming, and essential to healthy growth and wellbeing. For example, the act of swinging is not only fun, but has real impact on core physical strength and the development of the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and attachment systems that are needed for paying attention, printing and reading. Urban children are three times as likely to present with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) as are rural kids.   The good news is that as little as 20 minutes a day of green space time, time spent outdoors in nature, can alleviate many of the symptoms of ADHD in children.

In some urban areas efforts are underway to create green spaces where children can play safely without traffic and congestion. In New York City, the High line park on a former rail line is now a popular attraction and well used park, and plans are underway to repurpose defunct subway tunnels into indoor low line green spaces with light and air circulation and beautiful plants and gardens. This is an example of an effort to carve out green space even in densely populated areas.

 Q: It seems intuitive that technology is having a negative effect on society in the ways you cite (behavior problems, obesity, depression, lack of attention etc), but are these hypotheses or is the research definitively linking cause and effect?  Which are the most compelling studies upon which you base your conclusions?

ROWAN:  The truth is that we don’t know what the health impact of technology will be, as it is still so new. Remember that three years ago, the ipad didn’t even exist yet. But the research is growing. I spend my time collating research from thousands of studies that are increasingly showing evidence of causal relationships. We can now say definitively that playing violent video games causes childhood aggression. Increases in acoustic neuromas and sperm DNA fragmentation linked to cell phone and laptop use are only the first compelling twenty-year studies, and sadly indicative of more to come.

Another scary area is video game addiction. I implore parents to regulate video game use by their children before it becomes an addiction. Avid video game players experience the same physiological response as sex and gambling addicts. Their heart rates race and blood pressure escalates as their bodies release high doses of cortisol and adrenaline in anticipation of, and during, play. After awhile they achieve a state of Hypothalamic-Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) fatigue and require more and more of the stimulus to get the same feeling. Online games that are competitive and social with high immersion and realistic graphics are particularly insidious as addicted players are sometimes so reluctant to take a break they would rather wet their pants then get up to use the toilet. Video game designers call this the “pee factor” and strive for it. Remediation of video game addiction is an arduous process with only a 50% success rate The US military is processing 400 recruits each month with video game and pornography addictions. China has more than 300 treatment centers throughout the country for youth with video game addiction.

 Q: What about other experts who claim emphatically that video games are not harmful and sometimes even good for certain skills development like sharpening focus, reasoning and decision making skills?  Do you completely discount their research, or think it’s a matter of age/circumstance?

ROWAN:  I don’t disagree that this kind of limited positive effect is possible, but it’s all in context of who, what, when, where and why of the child’s overall health. Factors like age, duration of play and the general overall mental and physical health of the child are key determinants in the likelihood of healthy technology use turning into a harmful addiction.

Q: How can you tell if behavior problems in children are the result of technology?  If you take it away, the behavior often gets even worse.

ROWAN:  As an occupational therapist for the past 27 years, I began to see significant changes in my clients about fifteen years ago.   Increasingly, children demonstrated alarming rates of aggression, depression, ADHD, obesity, impulsivity, poor self regulation, and declining function of ocular motor skills to name a few. As I considered what might be causing the shift, I turned to a growing body of research related to technology use and children. I identified two primary areas of concern, the addictive nature of video games and the impact of technology use on children’s health, behavior, and ability to learn.

Recently I was in a classroom observing a child. He had fixed, dilated pupils and was playing on an imaginary ipad. After asking him to help the other students clean up the room, he responded that he had his ear buds on and couldn’t hear me. I decided to play along, so I pretended to take away the ipad which resulted in a tantrum rage, kicking and screaming for me to return what didn’t really exist. A child like this is most definitely demonstrating symptoms of addiction directly linked to his technology, as well as a dissociated state.

 Q: In a perfect world, parents and children would interact without technology, but are there any instances that you think technology is better than nothing, like books on tape if a parent is not home to read to a child, for example?

ROWAN:  I do believe there are wonderful resources in some educational technology, but I caution parents and educators that “What they watch is who they become.” Pro-social media, where characters are nice to each other, can have a positive impact on children when limited to roughly one hour per day for an otherwise healthy child. On the other hand, anti-social media, where characters intentionally harm others, can cause anti-social behaviors. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero exposure to technology for ages 0-2, one hour for ages 2-5 and 2 hours for those 5-18.

Technology in schools has great potential, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of learning without a teacher. For example, e-readers are effective in helping to create early readers, but once the “wow factor” wears off, children who have learned to read early on e-readers perform worse in school than those who learn to read with books. Furthermore, screen reading results in poorer concentration and memory than book reading. Teenagers are demonstrating a new level of impaired memory, concentration and a lesser ability to learn new information which is being coined “digital dementia.”  These are cautionary tales.

 Q: Do you think parents are as much a part of the problem as the technology itself?  

ROWAN:  Most definitely. We don’t have statistics on Asia, but we know that forty percent of North American adults are addicted to technology. Children watch parents and follow their lead. If we want to see any change at all, we have to change our own behavior around our kids. I suggest parents disconnect from technology, and reconnect with their children as a first step toward managing technology family over use.

 Q: Beyond the couch fort, can you offer any additional creative suggestions for what to do with children indoors that will engage their attention in the same way technology does?

ROWAN:  As a first step I suggest families start by reading one book per night, sharing one meal with the family per day, planning one game night and one family outing per week, and taking one technology-free holiday per year. Creating safe zones where there is no technology including the bedroom, bathroom, in the car and in restaurants is a good way to start creating boundaries to keep technology from taking over the household.

For further research and facts supporting this article, check out Cris Rowan’s excellent website http://www.zonein.ca.  

For a link to her presentation and photos from her visit to Hong Kong, check out http://lovetolearn.asia/en/english-disconnect-to-reconnect-technology-use-and-children-by-cris-rowan-22-sept-2014/.