In recent years, crime among children and young people has increased in many countries, including Germany. The recent cases of violent crimes involving children as perpetrators have triggered a debate about why children commit such acts and whether they should be held accountable for their crimes. There is much discussion about the consequences, an adjustment of criminal law – but not enough attention is given to the causes.
Can children today still reliably distinguish between right and wrong?
The increase in crimes committed by children may be a consequence of the first generation of young children coming into contact with digital devices. Studies have shown that the hectic scenes and emotionally stimulating digital content formats during digital consumption could have negative effects on the still developing brain regions.
The more frequently used activities are stabilised in these neural connections, while analogue experiences and skills are hardly trained and thus not neurologically stabilised.Especially young children need to learn that there is a difference between play and reality. But the smartphone often suggests that what is pictured is real, which can make it difficult for children to distinguish between digital and real life.
It is now a common sight to see young children trying to enlarge the fish in an aquarium with their fingers, or failing to turn a page in a photo album or picture book because they are used to swiping.
Parents who look at their own phones when spending time with their children and answering their questions exacerbate the problem: children no longer learn to read faces, they lack empathy and they can no longer put themselves in the shoes of others in an age-appropriate way.
The attention trap
Today’s cyber society is driven by the “attention economy”, which exerts constant pressure to communicate. Children are confronted with the mechanisms of the internet at an ever earlier age and are subject to a cyber automatism that forces them to move on several levels of perception and consciousness at the same time.
However, our attention is limited and decreases with each activity we perform.
It is therefore quite plausible to assume that not only neglect, as some psychologists suspect, but also smartphones, tablets and the digital media with all their apps themselves play an important role in the rising crime rate among children and young people. Some experts believe that hours of consuming violent games and films in front of screens could influence children and encourage aggressive behaviour. However, it cannot be ruled out that it is not only the content that is decisive, but rather the fact that children are using digital devices at an ever earlier age, often as early as toddlerhood, even though their brains are not yet fully matured for this.
Digital babysitter. Not a rare sight – a baby with a smartphone
In today’s society, there is an increasing fixation on short-term goals, which affects the quality of life of many. This tendency is reinforced by the prevailing cyber culture driven by the “attention economy” – a constant pressure to communicate and process information.
In this digital world, parents have often lost control of their own digital consumption and succumbed to the lure of the attention economy. As a result, they often give their children digital devices too early and for too long, which also lure them into the attention trap themselves, like their parents, whose model they additionally learn from.
Children are confronted with the mechanisms of the internet at an ever earlier age and are subject to a cyber-automatism that forces us to move on several levels of perception and consciousness simultaneously
Our attention is limited and decreases with each activity we perform. Studies have found that the frenetic scenes children encounter during their digital consumption – with numerous image changes and emotionally and physiologically stimulating formats – could have negative effects on the still-developing brain regions, affecting the development of attention and concentration skills. The more frequently used activities are stabilised in these neural connections, but the unused activities lead to a breakdown of the neural connections.
This means that their smartphone experiences and skills are strengthened, while Analog experiences and skills are hardly trained and thus not neurologically stabilized.
Are we raising a generation of anti-social beings?
Young children in particular need to learn that there is a difference between play and reality. But the smartphone suggests to little immature brains that what is pictured is real. This means that they will have difficulty distinguishing between digital and real life.
Moreover, they no longer experiment with the many other possibilities that might exist. In digital intuition, the possibilities are predetermined and deliberately limited. No one is supposed to try hard there. Children learn this quickly, so what we think of as simply turning a page can be an enormous cognitive and creative challenge for today’s smartphone-dominated toddlers.
Not an uncommon sight: Parents looking at their tablets and smartphones when spending time with their children and responding to their children’s questions.
This has dire consequences: Children no longer learn to read faces. They lack empathy and cannot put themselves in others’ shoes. Those who strive for a society characterised by compassion can actively contribute to this. One way to do this is to reduce or even eliminate the use of digital devices with babies and young children.
After all, loving and attentive care in the first years of life is invaluable for the healthy development of children and the shaping of a good social society.