‘Groundbreaking’ study to follow Alberta children growing up in a digital world

EDMONTON – A major new study led by a Harvard professor will follow thousands of Alberta children for years to determine the physical, mental and social consequences of growing up surrounded with screens and smartphones.

Dr. Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, is partnering with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the University of Alberta on the Growing Up Digital (GUD) Alberta project.

Rich, a former filmmaker who now runs the Boston Children Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health, will work with Phil McRae, executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, to study how the digital world is shaping children across the province.

“We’re not going to say ‘throw all your screens away.’ We want to identify things about media that are very powerful, that allow us to do things we’ve never done before, and also identify things that media does not do as well, and identify those times and situations in which you should turn the media off,� Rich said.

The project examines many consequences of today’s digital world, including how technologies are changing the way students learn in school, if children are having a harder time socializing because they’re more comfortable texting than talking, and if using a screen late at night impacts a child’s sleep and their readiness to learn the next day.

“We live in this digital era and part of the challenge is this has happened so quickly that we’re rarely stepping back and looking at its impact,� McRae said.

Canadian children aged eight to 18 spend about seven hours and 45 minutes in front of a screen — on a computer, TV, phone, or tablet — every day, McRae said.

“What are the implications of that? We need to look at the entire digital life of a child and talk about what is happening with things like exercise, homework, identity, distractions, nutrition,� he said.

Jason Daniels, associate director of evaluation and research services at the University of Alberta’s faculty of extension, will help with the data collection.

“We’re not going in saying technology is good or bad. We’re looking at what impact exposure is having on education and the health of children, both physically and mentally, positive and negative,� Daniels said.

Growing Up Digital Alberta is one of the first large-scale projects of its kind to examine both education and health effects of technology.

Rich compares the project to the Framingham Heart Study, an ambitious research project on cardiovascular disease that started in 1948 with residents in a Massachusetts town. The long-term study is now on its third generation of participants.

“My fantasy is to follow these Alberta kids for the rest of my life,� Rich said.

The project will study preschoolers, students in elementary school, tweens and high school students, tracking their media exposure for one week along with educational, medical and developmental outcomes.

The project is in its early stages and information on it is starting to be sent to parents through schools across the province. It’s expected the research will start to be conducted this winter.

Alberta is home to very digitally connected people, McRae said, and that makes it a good place for the study.

“We wanted to do something that would really be groundbreaking,� McRae said. “This is going to give us insight and info that a lot of other jurisdictions and regions in the world want.�



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