There is no doubt that technology has been a boon to our society. The Internet, mobile devices, and advanced information services have enabled access to an incredible wealth of information and knowledge across the globe. As technology becomes even more affordable and simpler to use, these benefits extend beyond the wealthy and educated elite. Even one-year-olds and ninety-one-year olds can pick up an iPad and become experts in a few days (we’ve all seen the countless YouTube videos).
Wooden blocks might be more educational than an iPad.
Though technology has improved our lives, there may be serious consequences to replacing the physical with the digital. New research suggests that electronic toys that talk and light up don’t just annoy the adults that have to listen to them all day but may impact a child’s development. Studies have long linked mental and emotional development to vocabulary and verbal interaction between a parent and child. Toys like wooden blocks promote the use of language that includes spatial and geometric terms (e.g. “The square block is behind the round ball.”), which research suggests foster normal development and even mathematical proficiency. Even when electronic toys talk using spatial and geometric words, they still seem to inhibit the interaction between parent and child and are insufficient to replace it. Wooden blocks might be more educational than an iPad after all.
Studies also show a close link between handwriting and cognition. Cursive, printing, and typing each utilize different areas of the brain. This means that not only do you remember less of what you type than what you hand write, but your creativity may also be inhibited. Additionally, according to an OECD report, researchers found no noticeable improvement in education outcomes when computers were used in the classroom. In fact, students who spent more time on computers fared worse. So, we can assume that increased access to technology, especially in classrooms, isn’t necessarily beneficial or even benign.
These impacts may not be limited to children. I am a huge fan of digital notebooks and I’m pretty sure my life would fall apart without OneNote. The convenience of being able to jot down random thoughts or ideas in a notebook that is always with me greatly improves my productivity. At the beginning of my MBA, I took all of my notes in OneNote. However, over time, I noticed I was having difficulty remembering lectures and had to constantly look back over my notes.
As an experiment, I left my Surface in my backpack and switched to a paper notebook. It didn’t take long before I realized that I not only retained more of the information, but I processed it better as well, developing deeper insights into the material. It’s not just a matter of typing versus writing; even using a stylus and writing in OneNote didn’t have the same effect. Managing settings and changing ink colors in an app were distracting, whereas I didn’t have to think about how to pick up a different colored pen or highlighter. No matter how great the digital technology, a keyboard or stylus just can’t replace the visceral connection you have with a pen and pencil on paper. I still love OneNote and use a stylus now more than ever, but they are secondary to my paper notebooks and fountain pens.
A lot is lost when atoms and molecules are replaced by ones and zeroes.
Blindly replacing our physical lives with digital ones may have countless unforeseen ramifications on our minds, bodies, and perhaps our society. A child’s alphabet block on a computer screen or a virtual reality headset can never replace the kinetic connection you get by holding a wooden block in your hands and touching the carved letters and sharp corners. You learn more by experiencing this physical connection, hearing it described with spatial and physical language, and being able to describe it yourself using your own words and experiences. A lot is lost when atoms and molecules are replaced by ones and zeroes.
Even with all the research currently available, we don’t know the full impact on future generations of our digital revolution. Additional research is needed, not only on the effects but in potential future designs that may mitigate some of the negative outcomes we are already starting to see. There are already great toys available that combine physical objects with digital interactivity. And Apple has admitted that there is value in the physical connection to our world with the release of its Pencil for the iPad Pro. Hybrid experiences may help offset some of the consequences of all-digital interactions but can never fully substitute for tangible, hands-on experiences with real people and objects.
As is true with most things, balance is key. By focusing on human design, behavioral research, and cognitive studies, a new paradigm could be developed that carefully balances the virtual and the real, the electronic and the physical. There is value in technological progress, but we mustn’t forsake face-to-face human interaction and our physical connection to the world around us.
For now, parents need to be careful about the way they interact with their children while using electronic toys. Use spatial and geometric words and don’t use these toys as digital babysitters. In fact, you might be completely justified just smashing that fancy new electronic toy. It’s not only annoying as hell, but it might be making your child dumber.