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Do computers make children 'dumber, not smarter'?

November 29, 2023

Computers have a negative influence on children's development, say 40 researchers petitioning to stop digitization in German schools.

https://p.dw.com/p/4ZX1n
Children in a primary school classroom, raise their hands in interaction with a teacher
A group of German researchers are petitioning to have a better balance of analog and digital tools in kindergarten and primary school classroomsImage: Dave Thompson/PA/picture alliance/empics

Computers and tablets are an increasingly important part of education in school classrooms. 46.7% of the world's primary school classrooms have access to computers, according to UN data, with figures as high as 98% in the EU.

Not everyone thinks computers are a benefit in the classroom, though. Ralf Lankau, a professor of media theory at Hochschule Offenbach has said "tablets and laptops do not make children smarter, but dumber" — referring specifically to kids up the age of 10 years.

Lankau is one of 40 academics who have launched a petition through Germany's "Gesellschaft für Bildung und Wissen" (Society for Education and Knowledge) to express their concerns about the effects of digital technologies on childhood development.

They are calling for a moratorium on digitization in German schools and kindergartens for children aged 4-11 years.

"The aim is not to ban digital technology, but to return to the task of teaching,"  Lankau told DW. "We should be asking: What is the learning objective and how can analog and digital media help us achieve it? And not: What new technology is available and how do we use it at school?".

Rethink of digital technology education

The petition comes at a time when German schools are being criticized for falling behind in digitalization.

But Lankau and the other academics want the German Ministry of Education to rethink how technology is used in German kindergartens and classrooms.

Lankau said the current education system doesn't focus on learning and educational benefits of social skills.

"Educational institutions [should] focus on the individual [and how they can] develop according to their own interests and inclinations and become part of the social community," said Lankau.

The main problem, he said, was that IT (information technology) and business associations have determined what happens in schools for 40 years, when we should be asking, "What do you need locally in your school, in terms of staff and possibly also media technology?"

Learning reimagined with virtual reality

What is the evidence about computers and child development?

Maria Hatzigianni, an expert in early childhood education and digital technologies at the University of West Attica, Greece, said Lankau's comments were part of an old "anti-technology" trend.

"People have been making these comments about computers since the 1990s. Every time a new technology comes out, people panic. Even Socrates, almost 2,500 years ago, said that writing things down will make us forgetful," Hatzigianni told DW.

But how bad is computer use for children really? Is this just another case of adults telling kids to get off their screens, or are the concerns real?

According to Prakash Ranganathan, Director for Center for Cyber Security Research at University of North Dakota in the US, the scientific evidence around the effects of digital technologies on child development is mixed.

"There is some evidence of effects on cognitive development — an inability to focus after computer over-use can lead to [a] passive learning experience which may hinder critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But it's unclear if these potential negative impacts are short or long-lasting," Ranganathan told DW.

Some studies suggest that over-use of computers affects physical health due to sedentary behaviors, including a rise in obesity, sleep disorders and anxiety.

Many of these concerns are connected with wider fears about the effects of the internet and social media on young people, but Ranganathan said we need more research to be sure of the links.

Computers can help child development

Ranganathan said there were huge positives, too.

Both Ranganathan and Hatzigianni highlighted research showing digital technology interventions are effective in enhancing literacy and numeracy skills, manual dexterity, and visuospatial working memory when used in a learning context.

Studies have found children's use of interactive digital technology enhances language learning, executive function (the ability to focus and get things done) and memory skills.

"We have robotics, coding, language learning, functional literacy, maths. Technology is a tool to help us access information and learning to be creative. It helps hugely with metacognition," said Hatzigianni.

A robotic avatar in a German school classroom
Education experts say new technologies assist children's learning when the children are supervised well by teachersImage: Hannibal Hanschke/REUTERS

Involving children in their education

Hatzigianni has been working with the Greek government to establish digital learning apps for children in kindergartens aged 4-6 years. Hatzigianni said working to create adaptable learning platforms that involve children, teachers and parents together have been the most successful.

"The right question should be: how are we going to use the right technology to enhance learning and improve teaching, not being scared of it," said Hatzigianni.

It's important, said Hatzigianni, for educators to work with children to create healthy digital lives. She criticized the German group for ignoring the input from children: "It's quite ironic that they say they want to teach more critical thinking and analysis in children, but then they take the choice away from children about their own digital education. Did they ever ask for children's active input?"

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany

DW-Mitarbeiter Fred Schwaller, PhD
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred