I don’t remember the details. I was just five, but at some point before I donned my snazzy new Hush Puppies and traipsed off to school, I knew a couple of things: 1) I knew how to tie my own shoes, perhaps with a little help, and 2) I knew that there wasn’t much else in the world more fun than romping through the great outdoors, never giving a second thought to spending countless hours in front of the telly.


We’ve come a long way since the late 70s, but since those magical self-tying Nikes from Back to the Future Part II are still about a year away, kids still need to do the old fashioned work of tying their shoes. Interestingly, however, many children from three to five years old would rather navigate the technology of Marty McFly’s future world than they would navigate the laces on their sneakers. At least, that’s what new research suggests.


When you think of AVG, you likely think of the Internet security company that provides millions of web users safer, more secure access to the Internet. What you aren’t likely to think of at the mention of AVG is fascinating research on the way that screen time may be affecting the developmental growth of our children.


In November and December of 2013, AVG’s team of researchers surveyed over 6,000 parents from various countries, including, among others, the U.S., Canada and the UK. Launched in 2010 and freshly updated for 2014, the research, entitled Digital Diaries, is an “ongoing study of the effects of technology on childhood.” The Digital Diaries findings are eye-opening, instructive and perhaps cautionary.


If you’re a proud parent, aunt, uncle, or gran, you know the gravitational pull of posting every cute carrot-stained face, every fumbled, precious word. It’s second nature. In fact over 60% of us upload pics of our kids before they’re two. There isn’t necessarily anything intrinsically wrong with this, of course. The point of the research is that our children are being born into a context of a connected world; they will never know otherwise. This digital free-for-all may be having an important influence on our children as they move from toddling to preschool.


Some children from three to five years old may seem to be falling behind in some traditional developmental milestones, while excelling at their digital dexterity. For instance, 66% can play online games, but only 14% can tie their shoes. A whopping 57% can operate at least one app, but only 13% know their mother’s telephone number. Shocked? Worried?


Before we join the sky-is-falling chorus, let’s do remember that some experts argue that the skills for tying shoes don’t fully develop until a bit past five-years-old, and I think we’d all be lying to ourselves if we didn’t admit that we stopped memorizing phone numbers a long time ago. Perhaps, like me, you’ve had the embarrassing realization when without your phone that you know virtually nothing about anything sans the security blanket of your smart(aleck)phone. We’ve begun to forget useful information because it’s at our fingertips. Our children have never had to remember it to begin with.

By age nine, our kids are almost completely enculturated into the world of technology and the Internet. This knowledge comes with helpful skills and deeply disturbing dangers. There are 16% of kids nine and under using social media, like Facebook, even though not technically being authorized to do so until 13. A soaring 46% of kids from six to nine years old are playing virtual online kids’ games. Their world is not the world of romping through the great outdoors behind the house. Theirs is a worldwide backyard, with many hidden nooks and crannies.


We all know that incredible dangers lurk just clicks away from the children’s fingertips. Almost one-fifth of parents say their kids have experienced inappropriate behavior online in the past year. One wouldn’t be shocked to find out that it’s far likely higher. All the way back to 2007, John Shehan from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noted that “about one in seven kids have been sexually solicited online.” Just think how online access has grown since 2007. As a point of reference, the first iPad was introduced on April 3, 2010. The access that our children have to online resources and dangers is staggering.


Despite the dangers, the situation isn’t hopeless. While 70% of parents said that too much screen time could be hindering their child’s development, 75% of parents also noted that technology helps children develop motor skills. Clearly, parents are struggling with what it means to raise developmentally healthy children in the age of constant connection. And, speaking of connection…


Ironically, as I’m writing this article, I’m also reading Dr. Karen Purvis’ book “The Connected Child.” The connection of which she speaks isn’t related to being constantly connected to the digital world. Rather, Dr. Purvis, TCU professor, world-renowned developmental expert and tender-hearted helper of children from “hard places,” has redoubled the refrain of the need to spend significant time in playful connection with children – especially children who’ve been faced with difficulties in their lives. The research coming out of TCU’s Institute of Child Development affirms that there’s just no substitute for healthy, safe human interaction for appropriate developmental health in our children. Connection is powerful and the most important connection is human-to-human and not human-to-device.


So, are we on a slippery slope to digital desolation? I’m not convinced that we are. The message from the research is not that technology has ruined our children’s brains and endangered their futures. Rather, it’s the realization that the entire culture has shifted and that all of us are swimming in a different social stream than ever before. We take it for granted, but our children know nothing else. They were born into it. How to safely navigating this new landscape is the key.


Perhaps this compelling new research helps us understand that we need to carve out time from the current digital context and teach children about life before apps, screens and devices. We dare not try to isolate our kids from all things digital. Balance, not banishment is the message.


Kids of each new generation are approached with new information, new technology and new ways of interacting with the environment around them. With balance, love, limits and healthy human interaction, technology can be a great benefit to their future…and to ours.


Richard Singleton, MACE, MAMFC, LPC, is the executive director at STARRY in Round Rock.

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