Digital devices and development

Julie Mavlian

06 October 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

JM child ipad reading tabletOn her recent visit to Australia, neuroscientist  Maryanne Wolf spoke about the impact of digital devices on the development of the reading brain.  Wolf is not against technology for teaching reading; she argues it has many benefits for society, including the “stunning progress in communication.” Her research asks the question: Will changes in attention and the expectation for constant, immediate information from external platforms of knowledge threaten the formation of deep reading in young digital readers?

Deep reading is where we take time to critically reflect, give ourselves time to think new thoughts, and take on the essential human skill of considering the perspectives of others.  Will children develop the cognitive capacities, or the motivation to think through the layers of meaning and insights in what they read? Joseph Epstein admonishes, “we are what we read but Wolf argues that how we read is just as important.

Other cognitive researchers have studied our changing reading habits, and concluded that skimming is the new normal, and so is distraction, attention switching and exposure to voluminous information.  These changes are happening in older brains that were taught to read using the traditional non digital way, so what about the developing reading brain of our digital natives?

Devices are in the hands of children as young as two, at a time when they are building critical early language, cognitive and social skills. Research tells us interactive and responsive human interaction is more effective than technology for developing rich early language skills that underpin early reading development, therefore parents and caregivers play in an essential role in speaking to, listening to, and reading to their children every day.

The Early Development Census found one in five Australian children are starting school developmentally vulnerable in language, cognition and communication. Given our ever-increasing appetite for digital devices, we must understand the research and the impact of new technology on the developing brains of our children. Wolf cautions, “we obviously cannot go back to pre-digital time; but we should not lurch forward without understanding what we will lose, and what we will gain.”

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