Too much tech?: Debate on children’s cellphone-use centers on health, social development, consequences

February 2018 Posted in Community, Technology

By Melissa WagonerScreen Shot 2018-02-28 at 3.46.59 PM

Cellphones in the hands of children – when and how often and is it safe – is currently a big area of concern for parents, teachers and health care providers here in the Willamette Valley and around the world.

“As a chiropractor I am concerned not just with structural problems of the body, but most importantly with the affects structure will have on nerve function,” Dr. Chris Allen, owner of Allen Chiropractic Wellness Center in Silverton said. “As the saying goes, ‘it doesn’t take a rocket scientist’ to see on a daily basis the postural strain the use of cell phones/tablets has on our children.”

This strain, currently being referred to as “tech neck,” develops because of prolonged pressure on the neck due to hunching over devices. Allen explained that with ideal posture the head is exerting zero degrees of forward flexion and only 10 to 12 pounds of pressure but with every degree the head moves forward, the weight increases significantly – at 15 degrees the weight is 27 pounds and at 30 degrees it jumps to 40. Symptoms of this stress are believed to manifest as headaches, neck pain, jaw pain and even respiratory stress.

“The obvious solution is to watch your neck position when texting or looking at devices, attempting to keep the eyes focused straight ahead and bring the device up to eye level instead of looking down for extended time periods,” Allen said.

Another health issue that Allen is concerned with, specifically when dealing with children, is known as
“digital dementia,” a concept popularized by German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer that proposes there may be cognitive development issues in children who spend time on devices.

“While a somewhat controversial topic,” Allen said, “the bottom line is it just makes sense that too much time on devices, especially during developmental years, will alter brain development.”

Allen went on to list some of the key components in child and infant development: physical touch, human connection and exposure to nature.

“Hours of time on cell phones and digital devices do not fill any of those needs,” he said.

Lastly, Allen said he is concerned about the emission of electromagnetic fields by cellphones, another controversial topic which most scientists agree cannot be fully understood without more data and scientific studies.

Allen explained that on his own devices as well as those of his family and employees he has engaged a “radiation-to-light” device which lowers electromagnetic
field emissions by 70 percent.

The topic of cellphone use isn’t just about physical health, however. Parents and teachers all over the world are discussing this hot-button topic when it comes to effects on behavior, learning and social interaction.

“I think it can be helpful as a parent to keep in contact with their child,” Melanie Middlestetter, mother to two boys ages seven and 10 said. “But it seems hard to monitor and some kids are not able to manage cell phones appropriately.”

As a middle school learning resource teacher of sixth through eighth grades, Middlestetter has the opportunity to view the effect cellphone-use has on a group of children while contemplating the future usage for
her own sons.

Middlestetter said that cellphone ownership within the sixth grade population at her school is around 50 percent but it jumps to 100 percent by eighth grade.

“[T]hey are a major distraction,” she mused. “Students use them to do research and then are easily distracted by other sites, funny images, etc. It’s hard to tell if the student is being appropriate or not. Many students want to listen to music while they work independently. Some students can do this, but some cannot and it becomes a distraction and then a power struggle in class.”

Jessica Newton, health teacher at Silverton High School has had similar experiences. Though her students are only supposed to use their phones between classes they often struggle with the temptation to use them at other times.

“Some students have a difficult time making the right choices,” she said. “I see a broad range of impulse
control abilities.”

Although neither Middlestetter nor Newton’s children are currently in possession of phones, John Paul Broad’s daughter Aubry has had her own basic flip phone since the sixth grade when she began to walk alone to school. More recently at the age of 15 Aubry asked for an iPhone with internet capabilities.

“I made a deal with her that I would pay for half,” Broad said.

Broad developed this co-pay arrangement so that Aubry would have an understanding and respect for the costliness and fragility of her new phone, but also so that he could maintain some measure of control over how it was utilized.

“I’m very up front about the fact that I have access to her accounts,” he said.

Although Broad said he has not felt compelled to access Aubry’s phone more than a handful of times, the arrangement gives him some modicum of control. Broad has also begun educating Aubry about the dangers of internet usage, and as an IT consultant, he is well
versed on these.

“I talked to her about secure deletion and encryption and about different protocols,” he said.

He also cautioned Aubry about the long-term and short-term effects of posting personal information using social media. In the long-term he said it is nearly impossible to fully delete information once it is posted and, once released, is no longer controlled by the initial party. In the short-term Broad also worries about cyberbullying.

“The whole thing has just been trying to keep a pulse on it and provide her with the tools,” Broad said. “My goal at this point is more about teaching her to fish than making sure she’s fed. If I wasn’t having a conversation about it she would find a way to circumvent me.”

Whether it is the possible health implications or the social effect, everyone agreed that cellphones are a tool and should be used as such by children.

“We definitely want them to understand that it is a tool,” Newton said. “Primarily we have wanted to have other in-the-flesh humans be their primary influences. We prioritize human connection and outdoor time and early access to a phone doesn’t support those priorities.”

Allen agreed adding, “I would say remember what childhood was like for you. Limit your kids’ time on devices and encourage them to play in nature. Being connected is not what we have been conditioned to believe – it is not how many Facebook friends you have or how many likes you got on your last post. It is about connecting eye-to-eye and face-to-face with the people you love and respect.”

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