Many parents are misguided about the safety of interactive devices with screens (smart phones, tablets, touch screen computers, etc.). The widespread use of gadgets has lead many of us to believe they are harmless for children.
You will hear some strong opinions in this article. And so, because of that, I do have to put them in the following context. First and foremost, I am coming from a place of professional expertise in child development, and to leave this issue unaddressed feels almost unethical to me.
Secondly, I am a huge proponent of digital literacy. With that, the points that follow have nothing to do with me advocating for a technology-free world. At the same time, I also see misconceptions about what digital literacy actually means.
Access to interactive screens does not equal improved brain functioning. Digital Literacy is an outcome of intentional curriculum, which does not include cartoons and Candy Crush.
Just the other day, a well-meaning mom asked me what kind of apps could I recommend for her really smart boy. I inquired about the child’s age, only to find out that he is 9 months old!
Obviously, this mom is very confused about what’s the right thing to do to support her developing child and, as I often see happen, has defaulted to assuming that technology has all the answers. This is not so, and this mom, unfortunately, is not an exception.
More and more often I am seeing children, as little as toddlers and infants, holding a blinking device in front of their frozen, amazement-stunned faces. Babies, who have not yet learned to sit on their own, are being propped by pillows and are given a phone to stare at. I hear complaints about toddlers who will not eat or go to bed without a device playing.
All of these are the signs of our misuse of tech tools, which were initially created and intended for adults. Let’s not forget that!
Many parents are misguided about the safety of interactive devices with screens (smart phones, touch screen computers, tablets, etc.). The widespread use of gadgets has lead many of us to believe they are harmless. In addition to this, products such as Fisher-Price Apptivity Seat for newborns and babies (please don’t buy that!), further perpetuate the myth that electronic devices are not only safe for young children but also have educational value. That’s wrong. Don’t let these companies make money off of your child’s health.
Passive consumption of electronic media has serious effects on children, and not many parents understand the long-term effects of exposure at an early age.
Of course, the world is changing and technology has become an integral part of our daily functioning. However, at the same time, we need to understand two very important things:
- a) the developing brain has its own needs, often conflicting with the impact of screens
- b) technology is a tool that is only beneficial when used according to best practices
Just because in their future children will need to use technology in order to become functional adults, it does not mean that starting early is the right approach. Our child will need to learn to drive a car, be able to use a microwave, and so on, but there is no question in our mind about whether it is appropriate to teach a toddler how to do those things now. Likewise, there will be the right time for our children to learn to use technology, and we need to make sure we guide and oversee that learning process.
The world may be changing, but early human development continues to depend on a gadget-free environment for optimal functioning.
We need to fully grasp that screen addiction is real and take responsibility for what we expose our children to. As adults who manage our own screen time and gadget use effectively, we may not understand the principles of addiction. The earlier that we expose our children to electronic devices, the stronger the dependency they develop and the bigger the repercussions for their overall mental functioning.
Parents who are concerned with the tantrums thrown by the child when the device is denied, often do not feel able to change the behavioral patterns that they themselves set forth. So don’t even start creating a perpetual cycle of tantrums over gadget addiction. Losing the sense of parental control and lack of appropriate limits this early in childhood has serious implications for healthy personality development.
Beyond the loss of parental control, what concerns me even more is when parents are misreading the child’s addictive patterns as admirable and geeky traits. For example, some parents are impressed with their child’s ability to manage multiple screens simultaneously. They erroneously believe that this is the way the child learns to multitask or, even worse, a sign of genius that needs to be reinforced. If things continue this way, childhood gadget dependency will not be a mere warning but a full blown behavioral and psychological disorder.
It is hardly a sign of geekiness to be addicted to screens and gadgets as a child.
The child’s overall social-emotional, language, and cognitive functioning will suffer if screens replace normal activities needed for proper brain development. As parents, we try to make sure our child consumes a healthy diet of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. We worry when he gets a rash or has diarrhea. At the same time, we often forget that cognitive and emotional development of our sons and daughters is determined by the kinds of activities they are engaged in or miss out on.
Is it because we cannot observe direct brain functioning and much of its development is hidden from view? Is it because we are not properly informed of how the brain works? Do we assume that addictions are an adult phenomenon? Whatever may be the reason, ignorance is not bliss in this case, and consequences of early screen exposure are serious.
Behavioral disinhibition, autistic features, emotional dysregulation, learning disabilities, impulse control and attention problems, are just a slither of potential neurological implications.
More studies are currently being done to confirm the precise range of problems. But we as parents need to remember that, while the scientists are at it, our children are not waiting. Disruption to a balanced development is happening now.
Expressed in language delays, poor social skills acquisition, low frustration tolerance, and other problems… Poor development due to gadget use is our responsibility. This is something we can change by taking control over our gadgets and screen time.
As a rule of thumb, the basic developmental milestones should be met before the child is given access to gadgets.
So what is the right thing to do? You don’t need to be a psychologist to help your child develop properly. Understanding the basic developmental milestones will point you towards the kinds of skills the child needs to develop before he “disappears” into the screen or gets “absorbed” by technology.
- If the child is not yet walking or talking, he should not be sitting motionlessly in front of a screen.
- When her social skills are not yet developed, she needs to be spending time with others and learning to interact.
- If you are still working on limit setting and discipline, gadgets are not appropriate rewards.
- And so on…
We have to understand that interactive devices have different implications for children, depending on their age and developmental milestones critical for that stage. At every stage (from birth to 18 years old), different limits need to be set. Developmental milestones need to take priority over screen time, particularly due to the time sensitive nature of when these milestones occur. Certain skills and abilities cannot develop if the environment does not support them.
Interactive devices are becoming the new nanny or a digital pacifier.
There is no substitute to human interaction. This very interaction is the cornerstone of proper intellectual and emotional development of the child. Parents and other humans are the best, if not the only, “developmental aids” for the children. Play with your child, direct them to productive activity, and teach to engage with environment around them.
Ask yourself, how does your child end up having a device in her hands? Is it appropriate for her age? Is this an intentional activity with clearly defined limits? Or, are you trying to distract your child or stop her from being disruptive? Would you give your child a lollipop just to shut him up? Would you give it every time he throws a tantrum?
I know this is a strong word, but I consider this approach very irresponsible. So much so, that I would even call it reckless parenting. It is irresponsible to give a “digital pacifier” to the child simply because it is convenient and so that we can attend to our own work. When the child’s environment is setup properly, it will allow for many hours of productive and focused activity, that does not involve screen time.
Speaking of digital revolution, let’s remember that we live in the age of information revolution as well.
There is no excuse not to know. Seek to learn about technology and its effects. And, when consuming, please do so responsibly! Our children are holding the future of the world.