Excerpt from Professor Dahl’s letter to SRCD.
“The rapidly-changing face of children’s daily experiences around the globe…
This is one of the greatest challenges facing our field and our organization: the world is changing in many ways at a pace that is historically unprecedented. For children born today, who will be transitioning to adulthood around 2035 – 2040, we have surprisingly little ability to predict what kind of world they will find.
If that sounds like hyperbole, let us look back. For young adults, age 25 today, consider just a few of the changes that have occurred since they were born in 1990.
In 1990: the first SMS message had not yet been sent. Now: Most U.S. adolescents own a mobile phone and send 60 text messages per day on average.
In 1990: one of the most popular video games was Super Mario Brothers and most gaming occurred in arcades. Now: electronic games, often played on mobile devices and cell phones, are a ubiquitous part of almost all adolescents’ lives in the U.S., with 97% playing for at least one hour per day.
In the 1990s: “Deep Blue,” the huge IBM supercomputer best known for victory against world chess champion Garry Kasparov, boasted a performance figure of 11.4 GFLOPS. Now: that performance figure is exceeded by several smartphones.
In 1990: The world’s largest-ever biomedical collaboration began a multi-billion dollar 13-year odyssey to identify the first human genome. Now: Sequencing a full human genome can be performed commercially for about $1,000; and we are quickly moving into understanding questions at the level of how developmental processes mechanistically influence gene expression.
In 1990: The first cell phone call was made using the new digital technology connection system that came to be known as the ‘second generation’ (2G) network. Now: Cell phones are ubiquitous; 3G and 4G networks cover much of the globe. More people on earth have access to cell phones (6 billion), than have access to working toilets (4.5 billion). The human species is now almost fully interconnected.
In 2000 (when today’s 25-year-old was turning 10) none of these yet existed: Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube. Now: Wikipedia contains 13 million articles in 200 languages; YouTube has more than 1 billion users worldwide and more than 300 hours of new video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
Most importantly: The rate of change looking forward 25 years is most likely to be much greater. In almost every measureable way, the pace of change is accelerating. For infants born today, the social, technological, and global contexts they will navigate—as children, adolescents and young adults—will be drastically different, in ways we cannot currently predict. This raises compelling questions for developmental science. It creates compelling challenges for the goals of understanding today’s child, growing up in tomorrow’s contexts.
Moreover, the sources of relevant change involve multiple interacting dimensions— including, for example, the effects of global warming, unprecedented globalization, immigration, urbanization, social and economic inequalities, and growing demands for food, clean water, and energy. Compounding the impact of these issues is the fact that more that 80% of the world’s youth are growing up in emerging and developing economies, particularly in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
On one hand, the core principles of understanding child development—and advancing that understanding through research—are likely to continue relatively unchanged over the coming decades. On the other hand, the foundational core of this understanding emphasizes an unfolding set of interactions between children and their social context. Thus, as the social contexts and daily experiences of the developing child are changing rapidly, so too are these core developmental processes. The implications are profound. Particularly from a global perspective, the need for innovative research that contributes to understanding these changes has never been greater.
The Rapidly Changing Face of Developmental Science
The challenges created by the rapidly changing world in which children are developing can appear daunting. Yet the pace of advances in science, including rapid progress in the tools and capabilities for meeting these challenges, can be inspiring. Importantly, the relevant science is exploding in breadth as well as depth.
There are a multitude of exciting advances that span a multitude of disciplines. These include developmental psychology, education, learning science, sociology, developmental neuroscience (spanning several sub-disciplines), genetics and epigenetics, pediatrics, child psychiatry, adolescent medicine, robotics and human- computer interface, as well as research addressing child-relevant questions in public health, social policy, social justice, and a broad range of legal and ethical issues relevant to infants, children, adolescents, and their lifespan trajectories.
The rapid advances in many of these fields are creating changes and opportunities that are breathtaking. Consider just a few examples of startling scientific headlines from a brief one-month period:
Neurobiologists re-create a critical juvenile period in the brains of adult mice, reactivating brain plasticity [Neuron 5/19/2015]
Engineers develop next-generation prosthetic: A robotic arm with 26 joints, that can curl 45 pounds and is controlled with a person’s mind just like a regular arm [NY Times 5/20/2015]
Chinese scientists edit genes of human embryos [NY Times 4/30/2015] Gene activation therapy prevents liver damage in mice [Science 4/30/2015]
In a striking example of how 3-D printers could customize medical care, doctors turn powdered plastic into tiny devices custom-fitted into airway tubes that save infant lives [Science 4/29/2015]
Neuroscientists have perfected a chemical-genetic remote control for brain circuitry and behavior. This evolving technology can now sequentially switch on and off, in mice, the neurons and the behaviors they mediate [NIH Press Release 4/30/2015]
It is important to acknowledge that some of these capabilities may raise as many fears as hopes. And most of these advances would not be considered within the traditional boundaries of research on child development. Yet, these examples illustrate the rate of advances, and the range of disciplines creating progress that impact children’s lives—and the world in which children are developing. Also, they highlight opportunities for SRCD members to participate in dialogues about how best to use and integrate scientific advances into efforts to improve children’s lives, and more broadly, the need to bring a strong child-development perspective to important policy relevant discussions stemming from such scientific advances.