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Children and Digital Media: Will Japan Suffer Another Phase of the Galapagos Syndrome?

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While the title may seem provocative, it reflects my true feelings. The Galapagos Syndrome is a metaphor for the unique development of mobile phones in Japan, similar to the endemic species of the Galapagos Islands. I will tell you about the three incidents that directly triggered my suspicion.

Japanese society has been strongly skeptical about the use of digital media by young children. In fact, some organizations of pediatricians even run campaigns to reduce tablet and smartphone usage in child-rearing situations to the extent possible. When children are placed in a new environment, it is important to carefully protect them from its influences, but I have been wondering if it is appropriate for professional organizations who act on the basis of scientific fact to issue such warnings when they are not clearly supported by evidence at this point.

The first incident that made me wonder about the title was when I came to be the judge of an organization which hosts an international award for children's digital books called the Digital Ehon Award, succeeding the place of Dr. Noboru Kobayashi, our Honorary Director. In the past, I have been a member of a committee to consider a curriculum for training picture book professionals in Japan. The objective of this organization's activities reflected some concern over the spread of digital media; in other words, the organization wanted to "protect" children from the (bad) influence of digital media through supporting for more (paper) picture books. However, as I looked at the several hundred digital picture books that had been submitted from all over the world, I was moved by the beauty of digital books with so many different and creative approaches to enhance interactive experiences. Not only do digital books show movement and sound that cannot be realized in paper picture books, but their way of enabling users to enter the world of the picture book is also highly artistic. These digital books which offer moving images, sound, and interactive information, not merely static visual information, surely have the potential to greatly contribute to child development.

The second incident was an experience that strongly underscores the predominantly backward view of digital media in Japan. I took part in a symposium, "The 3rd Annual Conference on Children and Media in the Internet Era," held in Guiyang, a city located in the interior of China. Although it was only the third symposium, specialists in education in China and digital media researchers and developers enthusiastically discussed the potential of digital media in education. In the late afternoon on the first day, experts in early childhood education and digital media application designers engaged in a free discussion. The designers proposed content to stimulate children's appetite for learning and actively exchanged views with the developmental psychologists and educators. There were also reports on practical studies of digital media use in education. Overall, the symposium demonstrated the high interest in this subject in China. I sensed a large difference with Japan where television and video games are considered key factors that impede learning.

As for the third impetus for writing this blog, it was reading the draft of the Position Statement of the Association of Early Childhood Educators (Singapore) on early childhood education and computer technology that is about to be released. I will omit introducing details, as it is still unreleased, but the statement in closing clearly expresses the progressive and innovative spirit of early childhood education in Singapore.

"We have a choice of either being overpowered, terrified and disabled by the new forms of technology or using them to our advantage as a powerful tool in enhancing our personal and professional lives."

In view of this eagerness on the part of other countries in Asia to engage with new technology, I am concerned that Japan will suffer another phase of the Galapagos Syndrome.

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sakakihara_2013.jpg Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.
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