Book Review: Essentials of Life-Span Development
There can be various reasons for reading a recent human development text outside of a formal course of instruction. One of my motives was to catch up on what’s happening in a field of study with which I was once much involved as a university teacher. But more generally, a good developmental textbook like Santrock (2022) can afford an education in the facts of contemporary life. Essentials of Life-span Development provides an overview of ages and stages in relation to physical, cognitive, and socioemotional developmental processes. This book also has the major advantage of being an intensely research-based text. Indeed, the research studies are tripping over each other, and this means that informed (if not conclusive) cases are made concerning topics of interest. The present review provides reports on three of the book’s central subjects: parenting, divorce, and screen use.
The author says that children “identify intensely with their parents, who most of the time appear to them to be powerful and beautiful, though often unreasonable, disagreeable, and sometimes even dangerous” (173). Parents are easily the biggest single source of influence for children who are developing conventionally; and parental impact is either established before birth (as in heredity), or it subsequently mediates and moderates the experiences that offspring have (as with peers, schooling, socioeconomic factors, and culture). Santrock has no ambivalence about what parenting entails, as well as about its significance; “Good parenting takes time and effort . . . You can’t do it in a minute here and a minute there. You can’t do it with DVDs or smartphone apps” (182).
Multiple instances are provided in the text of the beneficial effects of parents. For instance, early maternal sensitivity is associated with higher brain volume while adversity in infancy can contribute to brain immaturity and cortical delays. Parents also have significant influence on whether they have overweight children, and parental weight change can predict weight change amongst dependents. Amongst other domains in which parents undoubtedly make impressions are gender identity, social relationships, moral development, health protection, and risk-taking behaviours. Significantly, the raising and socialisation of children is a two-way experience that often has benefits for parents. A study cited in Santrock says that having a family provides a sense of meaning for 69 percent of people (compared with 34 percent for career), and parents are more satisfied with their lives than nonparents.
Parenting is such an important developmental influence for children and youth that divorce has to be considered as a significant disruption in young lives. A higher percentage of children from divorced families (25 percent) show serious emotional problems than do children from intact, never-divorced families (10 percent). Included in the increased costs for dependents are such externalised problems as academic difficulties, delinquency, drug use, and precocious sexual activity. In addition, there is a higher incidence of internalised problems among young people from divorced families like low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Importantly, three-quarters of children and young people from divorced families do not evidence serious emotional problems. But as upwards of 40 percent of families with children come apart, the number of dependents who are severely impacted by divorce is large.
As with the children of divorce, the adults who exit marriages evidence heightened incidences of problematic feelings and behaviour, including physical illness, alcohol abuse, motor vehicle accidents, and mortality. Research cited in Santrock reports that, despite the angst of going through a marital dissolution, around 75 percent of people who divorce later believe that they made the right decision. All the same, marital survivors have particular advantages; including the fact that the longer people are married, the more likely they are to own a home and to have other wealth. Most single older adults are women because men more often re-partner, and since women live longer than men. Comparatively, in old age, women are less likely to have sufficient financial resources to meet their needs.
Devices and screen time
These are a relatively new developmental force for children and young people that parents, teachers, and society are only beginning to grapple with. According to Santrock, young people are “encapsulated by media” (309). For very young children, television and DVDs are a regular and flickering backdrop, and viewing by 11- to 14-year-olds exceeds 60 hours a week. Smartphones are driving adolescent media use, with a quarter of them saying that they are continually online. However, as we all know, the prevalence of media use and screen time is not restricted to teenagers, and many adults media multitask. The full extent of television viewing in late adulthood can be surprising. In the US, on average, people aged 65-years and older watch more than 51 hours a week.
Problems with extensive, and indiscriminate, screen use across childhood and adolescence are that it replaces play, sport, and other recreational activities, it reduces interactions with peers and friends, it restricts sleep time, and it increases the risk of being overweight. Earlier concerns that were expressed by commentators about violent content persist, and to these have been added alarms about grooming and bullying on the Internet. Research studies and reviews involving young children show negative effects of higher levels of screen time for social skills and aggression, and for attention and cognitive development. Amongst adolescents, high use of screens has adverse consequences for academic achievement, social and psychological wellbeing, and quality of life. And inevitably, the seven and more hours every day that adults in old age devote to television will constrain time for physical exercise and social involvements.
The content summaries that have been provided here from Santrock should be approached with some caution. Firstly, Essentials of Life-span Development is an American text and it cannot be expected to automatically apply to our own unique sociocultural circumstance. Secondly, and unsurprisingly, this book contains a lot of correlational research studies; and when multiple investigations are cited in relation to a topic, false presumptions about causation may be even more pronounced. A third matter to be circumspect about is that the present review is largely concerned with psychosocial subjects, and it is the nature of human development that biological processes, cognitive processes, and socioemotional processes are intertwined and interdependent. Finally, Essentials is an introductory university text, and inevitably it promotes generalisations that seek qualifications; and these generalities also cannot be automatically applied to individual circumstance.
Peter Stanley is a retired counselling psychologist who lives in Tauranga, and whose career included being a police constable and probation officer, primary and secondary school teacher, guidance counsellor, and university lecturer.