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Digital life : Are smartphones and tablets harmful to children?

It buzzes at lunch and also glows in bed in the evening - the smartphone determines our everyday life. And elementary school children have long been playing with their mobile phones or watching a video. "Children who hang in front of the smartphone or tablet are getting younger and younger," says the president of the professional association of paediatricians (BVKJ), Thomas Fischbach. This has "catastrophic consequences for child development," he told the "Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung". Fischbach blames the constant "overstimulation" for ever more frequent lack of concentration, which also has a negative effect on performance in school. The doctor recommends completely withholding cell phones from children before the age of eleven. “The longer you postpone the children's smartphone use, the better,” he says.

Do children use a cell phone earlier and earlier?
"In fact, the age at which children use a cell phone continues to decrease," says Martin Korte, neurobiologist at the TU Braunschweig. According to a recent Bitkom study, every second child between the ages of six and seven has already used a smartphone - by the age of eleven, around 90 percent. Five years ago it was only 20 or 60 percent. As a result, watching videos is the most popular among all age groups. According to another study, 14-year-olds sit in front of a screen an average of seven hours a day, of which two and a half hours are in front of their cell phones.

Does excessive cell phone use harm children?
There is at least clear evidence of this. The large-scale BLIKK study with more than 5500 children showed a connection between increased media consumption and developmental abnormalities such as language development disorders, hyperactivity and concentration disorders. According to the study, boys were affected significantly more often than girls. However, no cause-effect relationship can be derived from the data. It could also be that children with these abnormalities consume digital media particularly often. It was also about observations by the parents, not medical diagnoses.

Do smartphones harm your concentration?
“Learning vocabulary with a mobile phone app has no negative impact on the ability to concentrate,” says Korte. The question is how the cell phone is used. “The ability to concentrate decreases when children do several things at the same time on their cell phones,” says Korte. For example, if you always react immediately to every incoming message in a chat. This trains the brain not only to pay attention to what is about to happen, but also to what might come. “The brain is in a constant state of alarm, so to speak,” says Korte. “This type of use brings children in particular completely out of step,” says Korte. This is also due to the fact that the frontal lobe, the brain area that is responsible for organizing and planning, is still growing in children and therefore has less computing capacity. Therefore, they are more easily distracted than adults.

Are there any other dangers?
There is also a risk that those who spend many hours in front of the screen will not do other things during this time. Above all, this includes movement - it has been proven to increase the ability to concentrate. Direct contact with other people is also a “booster” for brain activity, says Korte. Reading is part of it: Studies show that children who play the computer intensively but also read a lot do not lose their ability to concentrate. "Daddling on the screen for a limited time is completely unproblematic as long as the children are also doing other things in their lives," says Korte. In contrast, children who have a “monoculture” of digital media - that is, move very little, do not meet friends or read - have clear disadvantages in terms of school performance and intellectual development.

What should parents watch out for?
“Don't consume media, but create it yourself” - if parents take this principle into account, a lot is gained, says media educator Marc Urlen from the German Youth Institute. They shouldn't let their children “shower”, but rather use the technology together, for example to create their own picture books with creative apps.

For Urlen, such a conscious approach also includes not giving elementary school children their own smartphone: “You shouldn't start too early.” Instead, Urlen recommends using a family tablet that children only use under the supervision of their parents. For those up to ten years of age, he recommends on average no more than half an hour of “screen media” a day, which includes television as well as smartphones and tablets. Family rules drawn up together are helpful. In addition, parents should be aware of their role model function: "If you keep the child away from the cell phone, but hang on it yourself all the time - parents cannot enforce such rules with this double standard," says Urlen.

How do schools deal with smartphones?
In Germany only Bavaria has explicitly anchored a cell phone ban in class and during breaks in the school law. Cell phones may only be taken out here if teachers use them for a teaching unit. On Wednesday, Berlin's Senator for Education Sandra Scheeres (SPD) confirmed on request that she sees no reason for a general rule: "Schools can regulate the issue of cell phone use on their own responsibility."

Heinz-Peter Meidinger, President of the German Teachers' Association, would like an age-specific solution: a school-wide smartphone ban for all under-14s, unless teachers want to use the devices in class or parents have to be reached by the children. Not only the attention deficits are a problem, says Meidinger - but that even among elementary school students in WhatsApp groups in the classes there is being bullied and pupils disseminating problematic content. Older adolescents, on the other hand, have to be trusted to have the media competence to use smartphones - and allow them to do so, at least in special areas during the break and in free hours.

What are the tech companies doing?
Apple and Google have now incorporated functions into their latest operating systems that are intended to narrow down what they have created themselves: to spend as much time as possible with the smartphone. With Android it is called “digital wellbeing”, with iOS “screen time”. On an overview page, the user sees a kind of log of how long he has used the device on that day or week, how often he has unlocked the mobile phone and for what purpose. He can set the maximum usage time and mute notifications for a certain period of time.

At Apple, screen times can also be set up for other family members - including children. Google and Apple want to protect themselves against lawsuits and damage to their image. On Facebook and Instagram, you can now also see how much time you spend with the app and have reminders sent to you if the specified maximum is reached. However, it can be found quite hidden in the settings. However, all these functions require that you critically reflect on your usage behavior and want to change something.

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