Digital Dementia: Do we still need handwriting?

In today’s education system, our children are still required to complete the majority of their exams by hand during both High School and A Level, and even into University. Therefore, they still need to be taught handwriting and to have mastered the skill of handwriting before these exams. This is a given. But handwriting is not just something that needs to be taught to tick a box in the eyes of the education system.

Should handwriting be sacrificed for the sake of the convenience of technology? Is the deterioration in handwriting legibility also causing the decline of our minds?

Experts know that when we use technology, we use very little thinking; therefore not allowing our brain to form neural processes, yet writing by hand enables the writer to express more ideas. Associate Professor, Anne Mangen explained, ‘When we write by hand, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. Our brain receives feedback from our actions along with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper, which is different from the feedback from typing on a keyboard.’

Of course I agree that computers are a great addition to education, but I disagree with the use of technology at the expense of handwriting. I understand why many people raise the query of ‘If the future and digital world involves typing speaking and swiping than why do children still need to learn and know how to write by hand and hold a pencil?’ However, this skill does not belong to a different era, it is still very much needed not only from an academic viewpoint, but from a developmental viewpoint also.

In a previous blog, I have discussed my thoughts on why handwriting is still so important in this digital age, with my standpoint being that handwriting is much more than putting pen to paper.

Handwriting has not only been shown to support literacy skills such as reading, writing and speaking but research shows it develops areas of the brain that improve other skills. It has been proven that there is a relationship between handwriting and brain activity. But more than this, learning to write is what helps our young children’s mental and cognitive development.

However, with our children’s increased use of and exposure to technology,concerns are now emerging surrounding the threat of ‘digital dementia’. Digital dementia happens when such technology is overused and leads to a breakdown of cognitive abilities.

Author and former primary school teacher Louise Park states: “When students are constantly referring to digital devices for answers, they’re not committing basic facts and information to memory. They need to do this for neural pathways to be developed and for information to be committed to long-term memory”

“Teachers need to encourage students to write information with pen and paper, so learners are more likely to commit things to memory. It activates neural pathways to memory that typing on a keyboard doesn’t. When you are writing, you use three fingers, but the whole brain works.”

I couldn’t agree more with what Louise has shared within this article and it is vital that both teachers and parents are working hard together, to ensure they are encouraging their children to take regular breaks from technology, to write by hand and master basic handwriting skills – writing with correct letter formation, gripping a pencil correctly, and sitting with the correct posture.

In 2011, a video of a one-year old child attempting to swipe on a magazine to turn the page went viral, with many finding the video completely frightening. This spectacle can still be seen today, for example in my blog Pupils swiping left when they pick up books, where a teacher recently stated, “I personally still find it disturbing to see a child pick up a book and try to swipe left”.

It is examples like this that really do highlight the easy access that our children have to technology such as tablets and mobile phones and how the amount of time they spend on this technology is having detrimental effects on their development. With one in four children under two having an iPad, overuse of technology is now at epidemic levels and the demise of important cognitive and social skills is common place.

Paediatrics recommend no screen time before the age of two and cite the overexposure to technology from such an early age as the cause behind the rise in developmental delay, antisocial behaviour, poor motor skills and obesity.

With this in mind, is it time for the Government to regulate technology usage and give out guidelines of when children should start using technology? If healthcare professionals are starting to see lasting damage caused by technology, then switching back to traditional skills will give a welcome break from screen time.

One compromise may be to start writing handwritten digital notes that can be stored on a digital notebook system.

The main point to take from this blog is that it is now common knowledge of the effects that technology is already having on our children, so it’s time we do something about it. We don’t want to end up with a generation of children who have become so swallowed up by technology that they lack the basic skills of reading, writing and even critical thinking.

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