These days a child's primary toy and often best friend, closest companion, teacher, babysitter, and even sometimes a parent ... is a screen. Starting in the days of television, now further developed with the strength and opportunity of the Internet into computers in our pockets capable of shooting 4K resolution video with the touch of a button, screens are as ubiquitous as ever. And they are not going anywhere anytime soon.
Even just a cursory search at Google about children and screen will give results of nothing but warnings. Over the years the research has poured out, yet public opinion, much less practice, seems to have shifted very little. I know personally because for the last year and a half I have had numerous conversations with people about not letting my son play with their phone, or not posting pictures of him online - that they just happened to snap of his most recent and cutest facial expression without my permission . I don't even want to know the uphill battle I face when baby number 2 comes along in a few weeks.
Even back in 2014, UCLA research has shown that after 5 days(!) of no exposure to technology, 6th graders consistently perform better at being able to recognize and read human emotions than those that were interfacing with screens as usual. Now, research from the American Academy of Pediatrics is even linking toddlers handheld screen time to delayed speech development.
At the end of 2016 in fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new recommendations for children's media usage:
< 18 months:
Avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing.
2 - 5 years:
Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
6 and older:
Place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.
How many of our families are already intuitively integrating these types of practices? I know in my experience not many. Even as I try to implement these types of practices in my own family, I feel how difficult it can be, and even how strange it can seem to others around me (even in the church). So why is this so difficult?
I think that there are a couple primary reasons why technology is so difficult to control (much less eradicate - just picture Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation).
1. It's easy.
As a parent of a toddler, I understand this one. A built in screen babysitter than can so effectively mesmerize our child for several minutes, or even hours, is so tempting when we just need a couple of minutes of peace and quite. Recently we were on a relatively short airplane flight (just a couple of hours) and our toddler hadn't had his nap and was absolutely hating being confined to a 2 square foot space (he doesn't even get his own seat yet). And in the seat in front of us there was a mom and grandmother along with the toddler girl that couldn't have been more than a year older than our son. The girl was fixated on a screen with her own set of headphones the entire time, as quiet and calm as can be. They even turned back in apparent empathy (or perhaps it was just frustration) for our situation as our son was going ballistic. They even seemed to want to say, "Why don't you have your own screen for him?"
2. We think it's "educational".
Everyone wants their child to be the best, brightest, and most athletic. It's the American way. But sitting your child in front of Baby Einstein won't necessarily give them a leg up on their competition. Findings show that without social interactions, screens don't teach anything. Watching educational programming is best suited for age appropriate children (not under 2 years old basically) and only when it is done when the parent or caregiver is present and interacting with the child because children younger than age two don't understand that the world on the screen corresponds to their world, and have a hard time translating what they see into real life.
So before we hand lil' Johnny our phone to simply pacify him for a few minutes helping him create all kinds of dopamine addictions that he will likely spend much of his adult life trying to break ... let's decide to make the harder choice for their sake.
Click here to see the American Academy of Pediatrics Media and Children Communication Toolkit